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Do the math: Two-for-one regulation plan could cripple safety protections

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Suppose the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration wanted to finally update its decades-old rule on exposure to silica dust to help protect coal miners from the rising threat of deadly lung disease.

Fine. As long as MSHA officials are ready to get rid of two other rules — like maybe the one that sets ventilation standards to prevent underground mine explosions and the one that requires roadway berms at surface mines so workers don’t drive off a cliff.

That’s the way Celeste Monforton, a worker safety advocate and public health lecturer from George Washington University, describes how President Donald Trump’s new mandate for cutting down on federal government regulations will work.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order that says, “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.”

The order says, “any new incremental costs associated with new regulations shall, to the extent permitted by law, be offset by the elimination of existing costs associated with at least two prior regulations.”

Writing last week on “The Pump Handle,” a blog about public health issues, Monforton rattled off a list of examples of how things might go when federal agencies come to the White House looking to put in place additional protections for workers, consumers, travelers and — basically — all Americans who rely on government rules that govern everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe.

One example: The Federal Aviation Administration wants to enhance testing requirements to protect against flocking birds affecting airplane engines. That’s the situation portrayed in the film “Sully,” about the emergency landing of an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River in 2009.

As Monforton explains, such a proposal from the FAA would prompt the Trump White House to first demand, “let’s get rid of that pesky regulation that requires a 10-hour rest period for pilots” and a separate rule that requires a minimum number of flight attendants.

“Sleep is for sissies,” Monforton writes that the Trump administration might tell the FAA. “Flight attendants are over-rated. I hear they don’t even serve meals anymore.”

While Monforton might be exaggerating a bit for effect, she and a wide variety of advocates for worker health, public safety, consumer protection and environmental quality are all deeply concerned about the Trump order and its long-term effects on the country.

“This executive order is absurd, imposing a Sophie’s choice on federal agencies,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If, for example, the EPA wants to issue a new rule to protect kids from mercury exposure, will it need to get rid of two other science-based rules, such as limiting lead in drinking water and cutting pollution from school buses?”

The consumer group Public Citizen issued a statement calling the Trump plan “radical and unworkable,” and said it would “result in immediate and lasting damage to our government’s ability to save lives, protect our environment, police Wall Street, keep consumers safe and fight discrimination.”

The Trump approach, some experts say, may be built on the notion that lots of government regulations serve no purpose. It also, they say, seems to assume once a regulation has been in place for a while, any real threat it was put in place to combat disappears, and enforcement of the protections involved is no longer needed.

Instead, the experts say, what the Trump approach really amounts to is a way for regulators to have to choose which kinds of health dangers or consumer scams will be outlawed and which will be allowed, rather than working for a broader protection from all such threats.

At the same time, Public Citizen predicted the public would see some results of the executive order right away.

“Upcoming regulations to update lead safety standards in drinking water, prohibit payday lenders from preying on consumers with unconscionable interest rates and remove unsafe chemicals from the marketplace under the new Toxic Substances Control Act are just a few of the vital new measures that will be shelved until corporate special interests identify public protections for the Trump administration to repeal,” the group said.

Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, a progressive think tank at the New York University School of Law, noted the Trump executive order doesn’t really talk about the benefits of government regulations that might be put in place or eliminated under the order.

“This ‘one in, two out’ policy is a deeply flawed and irrational approach to regulations,” Revesz said. “Judging a regulation solely on its costs, without considering benefits, is illogical. Yet the order makes no mention of accounting for a regulation’s benefits, which are often carefully quantified by the issuing agency.”

Some industry groups, while backing the Trump rhetoric about doing away with government regulations, aren’t exactly rushing to publicly back the specific approach outlined in the executive order.

For example, National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the significance of the Trump order is that it “shows how ‘elections have consequences’ — in this case a dramatic reversal of the reliance on regulation to implement policies that Congress would not approve.”

Popovich noted specifically Obama administration rules aimed at the coal industry.

But when asked about the executive order, Popovich said, “We haven’t taken a position on this specific approach, only applaud the direction it is taking us.”

Ken Ward Jr. covers the environment for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and is a native of Piedmont in Mineral County, W.Va., and a graduate of West Virginia University. He started at the Gazette in 1991 and his reporting on environmental issues and workplace safety has received numerous national journalism awards.

Originally published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, February 6, 2017