The tragedy of the huge and ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the source of much controversy, multiple competing narratives, and unashamed finger-pointing by nearly all involved. And as with all such tragedies it seems, there were immediate calls for a crackdown, which is to say, stricter enforcement, stricter regulations, and any other changes needed to make sure that such a tragedy does not happen again. For example, as reported in a news article last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats had sent President Obama a letter that “urged immediate and enhanced inspections of all offshore drilling rigs and platforms that could pose a significant environmental threat.”
The article went on to note that:
“The letter, signed by the top five Democratic leaders, said inspections by the Minerals Management Service of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were inadequate. The inspections failed to reveal problems with the so-called blowout preventer, among other problems, the letter said.
“The lawmakers called for Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to conduct an “immediate top-to-bottom review of all inspection and testing procedures used to evaluate all offshore drilling equipment,” including on offshore rigs and production platforms.
“‘We need foolproof testing procedures to guarantee equipment integrity, particularly when it comes to equipment like a (blowout preventer) that must act as the last line of defense against disaster,’ they said.”
The fact of politicians bemoaning the lack of strict enforcement, or otherwise criticizing an agency performance, is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning. Indeed, as politics and PR goes, this is a song and dance that we have all seen many, many times before. Take for example, the huge Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Salmonella outbreak, in which, as of early February 2009, eight people were reported to have died, and over 575 people had been sickened in 43 states. Much like the current furor over the oil spill, politicians and many others lined up to castigate the FDA’s myriad shortcomings in having failed to inspect the PCA plant and discover the awful unsafe conditions there.
As reported in an article published in the New York Times, “The conditions at the plant, more circa 1955 than 2009, would have been enough to cause alarm in an industry where sanitation can be a matter of life and death, food experts said.”
The article continued:
“But its yellow-brick walls hid the array of poor work conditions and safety flaws, said employees, who lost their jobs when the plant closed on Jan. 16.
“Many of the hourly workers earned only minimum wage and had gone years without a raise. Frederic McClendon, 31, a shift supervisor, reached $12 an hour last year but still could not afford health insurance for his two boys, who live in a weather-beaten trailer. “If you pay your workers, you get the best out of them,” Mr. McClendon said. “If you don’t, you don’t.”
“Using temporary workers also saved money, said Mr. Hardrick, the assistant manager, ‘but there was a lot of retraining going on.'”
And–no surprise–there was the requisite sound-bite from a member of Congress in which he expressed shock that PCA’s internal records showed that it “was more concerned with its bottom line than the safety of its customers.” This expression of shock cannot help but bring to mind the famous line from Casablanca in which the character, Captain Renault, loudly says “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” And, of course, Captain Renault says this while being handed his winnings at the roulette table.
Nonetheless, with the oil spill, as with the PCA outbreak, one could hardly pick up a newspaper, or watch the news on television, without seeing some politician expressing outrage over the fact that a corporation had the gall to put profits above safety, and to cut corners as a result. To my mind though, the sheer ubiquity of such outrage not only renders it utterly banal, it calls into question–or calls more into question–both the sincerity of expression, and the genuineness of the stated desire to address the problems that make tragedies like this oil spill possible in the first place.
Missing among the cries for “enhanced inspections” and “foolproof testing” is any real questioning of why inspection regimes so often fail to deliver expected levels of safety. While outrage is easy, devising real solutions is not. I think that is why policy-makers so often call for crackdowns while never following through by making the kinds of systemic changes needed for achieving real improvements in safety. While politicians are quick to express outrage over putatively evil corporations that have the heartlessness and gall to put profits over safety, those same politicians are not shy in accepting a share of those profits in the form of campaign contributions. No one should thus be surprised when some of the same politicians expressing outrage quickly step in to protect the financial interests of the oil companies–like Senator Mary Landrieu, for example, who criticized BP out of one side of her mouth, while describing the spill as only “as thick as a couple strands of hair” out of the other side of her mouth, while arguing “Retreat is not an option. … We must continue to drill.”
There was one bright spot, however, among the reactions to the oil spill, and that was the announcement, by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, that “the federal agency at the center of the Gulf spill disaster will be split into three groups to avoid conflicts of interest.” As Salazar explained: “The Minerals Management Service has three distinct and conflicting missions that–for the benefit of effective enforcement, energy development, and revenue collection–must be divided.” He was also quoted as saying at this new conference that: “It is essential we have a government that avoids even the perception of a conflict of interest.”
Such quick government action reminds me–and not in a good way–of the lack of action that followed the expressions of outrage, and calls for action, that occurred in the wake of the PCA outbreak. For example, in that instance, the Secretary of Agriculture called for the creation of a single food safety agency. As reported by an Associated Press article:
“The peanut recall offers a prime opportunity to merge all federal food safety oversight into one agency, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday.”
“‘You can’t have two systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered,’ Vilsack said. ‘This is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach.'”
Sadly, this was not the first time that someone had pointed out the need for systemic revision to food safety regulation and inspection in the United States. And neither was it the first time that expressions of outrage over people dying from foodborne illness were followed by no real changes at all. And all I can say about that is: I’m shocked! No, really, I’m shocked!
 By the time the investigation of the PCA outbreak was mostly over, on or around April 20, 2009, the CDC was reporting that the number injured by confirmed infection had exceeded 700 people, and 9 people had died. See http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typhimurium/update.html
 Michael Moss, Peanut Case Shows Holes in Safety Net, N.Y. Times, Feb. 9, 2009.
 MSNBC, “Offshore oil agency being split into 3,” May 19, 2010 (no longer available online).
 Mark Jaffe, “Drilling agency MMS split into 3,” Denver Post, May 20, 2010, available online at http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_15121932?source=rss
 AP, “Official: Food safety must be under one agency,” Feb. 6, 2009, available online at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29060603/© Food Safety News