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April 29, 2014

Government is failing to protect us

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — American governments, at all levels, for a century have been increasingly forced to step in to protect people from big business, whether in our factories, the supermarket, our cars, nearby streams and even the air we breathe.

Government regulation of working conditions, food quality, car safety, energy and pollution never proceeded quickly and without a struggle, even under the guidance of the most liberal leaders. Corporations pack a lot of clout, and, as we all know, money and lobbying “make the world go ‘round.”

Conservatives, of course, like to say that unfettered capitalism without government interference is good for the economy, and what’s good for the economy is good for people.

But we know that’s not true. Without government, how many working hours and how many casualties would be the norm where we are employed? Too many toxins would still be standard fare in the food we buy. How many rivers would still be on fire from their pollutants? And how many Ford Pintos would be on our roadways?

It has come to light in recent months, however, that our levels of government have been failing to protect us in many ways, just when we thought we had a president who might push the country in a more-healthy direction.

For example:

• In January, a power plant’s chemical storage tank near Charleston, W.Va., began leaking 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (known as MCHM) into the Elk River, upstream from a water-treatment plant. About 300,000 people in several counties were advised not to drink the water, and hundreds unaware of the advisory had to seek medical treatment.

According to The Washington Post, many such discharges are legal because the EPA “has few limits on chemicals released by power plants (although last year the agency proposed the first major limits on a few compounds since 1982).”

In addition, in West Virginia, above-ground storage tanks are not strictly regulated. The tank that leaked had not been inspected in 12 years.

Another problem is that little is known about MCHM and its health impact. The Post said that “U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective.”

• After the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released yet another dire warning of ecological collapse, famine, flooding and pestilence, Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker, pointed out some surprising facts about our government.

“Instead of discouraging fossil-fuel use,” she said, “the U.S. government underwrites it, with tax incentives for producers worth about $4 billion a year.”

Kolbert also said the tax credit that spurred growth in wind-power generation in the U.S. has been allowed to expire.

President Barack Obama has proposed tightening carbon emissions from power plants and large vehicles. He has prohibited building new coal-fired plants, but at the same time is pressing for more production from other fossil fuels.

• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been criticized for dragging its feet by not forcing General Motors to recall flawed cars linked to numerous accidents, some fatal.

Two Chevrolet models had faulty ignition switches and the Saturn Ion had a power-steering problem.

GM is facing several investigations for delaying its recall until long after accidents and complaints had surfaced. It could be hit with criminal charges along with numerous lawsuits.

But it is just as disturbing to find that the government knew about the faulty cars, investigated, but did nothing to step in to protect the public from GM.

• In the latest incidence of the government siding with corporations, the Federal Communications Commission last week made it clear it planned to propose new rules that would create a two-tiered Internet, one for the big guys willing to pay and one for the 99 percent.

The rules would allow firms such as Time Warner, Verizon and AT&T to create a “fast lane” for content providers willing to pay high fees. The rest of us would have a “ baseline level of service.”

Internet sites dedicated to exposing the wrongs of big business or government could be silenced. Video, live streaming and other media from alternative news sources might be slowed or become inaccessible.

So much for what’s become known as “net neutrality.”

These are merely a few examples of our government failing to protect us from corporations placing profits ahead of public or environmental welfare. And with the intense corporate lobbying going on in Washington daily, the prospects for any improvement are grim.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.