Sunday, March 12, 2006

Nitric acid, Nervous Nellies and federalism writ large

By Mark Dorroh

There was a lot of good stuff to be heard at the candidate forum hosted Monday by Hopewell's City Point Neighborhood Watch Association. The three dozen residents who turned out were, for the most part, smart, articulate and thoughtful, as were the three candidates.

But some of the questions asked (and assertions made) indicated a sizable gap between what we all learned in school and how well we remember it in our adult years. So consider this column a refresher course in Civics 101 ... there will not be a quiz on this stuff, but boning up on it may save us all a bit of future public embarrassment.

Lesson The First: Our city council has absolutely, positively no power over the operations of Regional Enterprises Inc., the rail-truck transfer company which accidentally vented rather a large amount of nitric acid into the atmosphere in late July. The sole circumstance under which council would have any influence whatsoever would be if the company chose to expand operations into a portion of land on which a zoning change or conditional use permit would be required.

Everything else is regulated by state and federal agencies. And unless Regional Enterprises is a radical exception to the rule, those regulations already keep management plenty busy filling out forms and delivering mandated reports. Whatever might be wrong with the operation, it does not suffer from lack of governmental oversight … none of which involves Hopewell City Council.

Besides, statistically speaking, living near Regional Enterprises is a lot safer than plenty of things we cheerfully tolerate all the time. Hopewell ain't Bhopal, India.

It's not even Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Sadly, the public reaction to the supposed dangers of that minor, essentially harmless, media-hyped accident in Pennsylvania was a lot like local reaction to the Regional Enterprises spill in Hopewell. Neither accident killed anyone, but both got Nervous Nellies endlessly wound up over the possibility of ... what?

Statistics indicate most of us are a lot more likely to die of the radon gas in our basements, the lard in our butts, the calcium in our veins or the cigarettes dangling from our lips than we are to die of either nitric acid inhalation or radioactive steam.

Perspective, campers! Perspective! If you've got to get shocked and appalled over something, I can offer a smorgasbord of indignant delights, including, but not limited to the bureaucratic red tape Regional and every other American company has to deal with, paid for not by the company, which has to turn a profit to stay in business, but by every single one of us.

What, you think the money a company pays for all those employees to do all those hours of government-mandated labor came from some magic pot of loot? Is that what you think?

If so, you've got another think coming. Nothing comes without cost, the ultimate payers of which are American consumers. In other words, thee and me.

I am very much in support of environmental regulation for the sake of public health and safety. What I'm not in favor of is malignant fantasies inflicted by clueless, well-intentioned persons upon the wrong bunch of elected officials. The relation between state, federal and local governments is not that hard to understand. We all learned it in high school if not before. Let's keep it in mind when deciding whom to vote for, whom to gripe at and whom to blame for "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."*

*Quote courtesy of Willie the Shake, from his popular, full-tilt melodrama "Hamlet."

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