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What will cutting environmental regulations do?

Originally published in SBS, 14 January, 2014

The Abbott government has vowed to slash 8,000 “redundant” laws as part of its pledge to “slash red and green tape.” Let’s not cut and run on environmental safety, writes Simon Copland.

On Monday, The Australian revealed, that the Abbott Government is planning a special ‘repeal day’ scheduled for the last Parliamentary sitting day in March. The aim, apparently, is to repeal 8,000 pieces of ‘redundant’ federal laws, with Cabinet Ministers being given six weeks to prepare submissions on what legislation should be repealed.

Repeal day is part of the Abbott Governments long publicised plans to ‘slash red and green tape’.

The aim, as the Coalition explains it, is to ‘streamline processes’, make our Government more ‘efficient’, reduce costs for businesses, and boost productivity and economic growth. Josh Frydenberg, the man placed in charge of the agenda, wrote in the Australian on Monday:

“Every industry and every stakeholder has their own horror story about the costly and detrimental impact of burdensome regulation.”

It is probably true that Abbott’s war will lead to these goals. It will make life a lot easier for businesses. But this week we have been given a picture of picture of what that actually means; a picture of the the impacts of cutting regulations, particularly the so called evil ‘green tape’.

In West Virginia in the United States, a massive chemical spill in the Elk River has cut water supplies to 300,000 people. Water has been cut to residents in the capital of the state Charleston, with residents “urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing.” Water cannot even be boiled safely, with the federal Government being forced to declare a state of emergency, and bottled water being shipped into the city to sustain the population. Many businesses, Government offices and schools have been forced to shut, whilst emergency rooms in the city’s hospitals have treated 169 patients due to chemical related illnesses.

It could be easy to argue that the spill is a one-off event – an accident that has nothing to do with environmental regulations. But when you look closer, it is hard to make that case. With a large coal industry West Virginia has long been known as an anti-environmentalist state, which has actively spurned environmental regulation (the 2010 election campaign featured an advertisement where the the Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, shot a copy of the cap and trade legislation). As critics have pointed out, this is the result of this approach.

Research into exactly how and why this chemical spill happened is still underway, but lax regulations are already copping some of the blame. For example, when constructed, the storage facility that leaked was placed almost directly next to the Elk River, meaning that any spill – whether small or large – was destined to pollute the city’s water. The facility had also not been inspected since 1991, leaving very little oversight of its operations. West Virginia does not require inspections of chemical storage facilities, meaning that faults and problems can easily be missed or ignored by operators.

This is not the first time West Virginia has faced water problems. A New York Times special investigation in 2009 showed that the state’s lax approach to water safety regulations was having a real impact on people. The article starts describing the situation many in West Virginia face:

“Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.”

This is the reality.

While Tony Abbott will tell you that all environmental regulations do is hamper businesses from creating jobs and building the economy, these events in West Virginia are showing what they’re really about – and what can happen when we let them slip. Environment regulations are there to protect our rivers from mass chemical spills that could leave us without drinking for days on end. They’re there to keep our air clean, our drinking water safe, and our land protected. And whilst it may be hard to see Australia heading down the path where we can’t even drink our water, this is what could happen if we continue to let big businesses have their way through cutting essential regulations at every point.

Vital protections that keep our drinking water safe, our air clean, and our communities protected are much more than just tape.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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