President Ronald Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator” for his remarkable ability to distill complex political and philosophical principles into one-liners that virtually any audience or political leader could understand. For example, when speaking to representatives of the Future Farmers of America on what happens when the government becomes involved in agriculture, Reagan famously quipped, “The 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’”
Today, as orange water saturated with toxic contaminants flows down the Animas River from Colorado towards the farmlands of the Southwest — because of a blunder by federal workers — the words of the “Gipper” ring louder than ever.
The environmental disaster unfolding in Colorado is one of the worst since the 2010 “BP Oil Spill” in the Gulf of Mexico. This time, however, it is the federal government — more specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency – that is responsible for the mess. While poking around the old Gold King Mine in Colorado as part of a “clean up program,” EPA crews broke through a retaining barrier. The breach released some three million gallons of heavy metal-laden water into the river, which flows into New Mexico and from there into the vast San Juan River Basin.
Compounding the problem of the spill itself is the EPA’s slowness in admitting to and detailing the scope of the disaster, including how much toxic sludge was actually released and the extent of the risk to citizens and lands downstream in both the short-term and, more importantly, the long-term hazards. Without a private sector company or citizen to blame, the EPA is loath to hold itself accountable, or to practice the transparency it so often demands of the private sector.
The EPA downplays its environmental blunder that has become “Animasgate” as merely “trigger[ing] a large release of mine wastewater.” The Agency presents itself as a victim in a “tragedy” with which we should sympathize because it is, after all, so “hard being on the other side.” Well, boo hoo!
Compare this “woe is me” scenario to the vitriolic attacks by the federal government against BP following the Gulf Oil Leak five years ago, when no mercy was shown to the corporation that was responsible for the accidental spill. The Department of Justice blasted BP’s “culture of . . . profit over prudence” and accused it of “gross negligence”; the Securities and Exchange Commission charged BP with “hid[ing] critical information simply because it fears the backlash”; and, the EPA temporarily banned BP from new government contracts, citing the company’s “lack of business integrity.”
The double standard so blatantly on display in this instance by the feds, is made worse by the fact that the government can not only levy huge fines against companies (or individuals) who violate environmental regulations and laws, but can pound them with criminal charges as well. However, when the shoe is on the other foot, and it is Uncle Sam’s bureaucrats who are at fault, how are they to be held to account? What incentive does EPA have to do what it demanded of BP – to spare no cost in rectifying the problem to the government’s satisfaction; and to do so with absolute transparency and repeated admissions of guilt.
Even our judicial system offers little hope to the victims of the Animas River Spill; because it is so institutionally rigged in favor of the government.
At least when corporations are the agents of environmental disasters, those adversely affected have recourse in the courts. Not so with government agencies, which largely are shielded from being subject to lawsuits through doctrines such as sovereign immunity. There is, in effect, an inverse relationship between giving government agencies, including EPA, more power, and making itaccountable for the use (or abuse) of those powers.
The far Left may claim a moral monopoly on protecting the environment, but none of its pro-regulation, anti-business “solutions” to environmental woes have done anything more than empower government to punish those who defy its demands, while insulating itself from culpability when it cannot live up to those same standards.
While neither the mainstream media nor the political arms of the Left would ever admit, it is conservatives who possess a far more legitimate claim to being leaders in the fight to protect the environment. From the tens of millions of hunters, farmers, outdoorsmen, and others who have a personal stake in conserving and protecting America’s natural resources, to entrepreneurs like Tesla’s Elon Musk who are pioneering the future of renewable energy — it will be the free market that delivers the tools, technology, and ideas used to improve our world. And, as Reagan stated so eloquently decades ago, the private sector’s potential for good is limited only by the government’s desire to “help” it along.
With “help” such as provided by EPA last week in Colorado, the country – and the environment — would be far better off if Uncle Sam just stayed home.
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Bob Barr, represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.
Bob Barr is the author of The Meaning of Is: The Squandered Impeachment and Wasted Legacy of William Jefferson Clinton (2004), and LESSONS IN LIBERTY(2008), as well as co-author with Gary Aldrich of Thunder on the Left: An Insider’s Report on the Hijacking of the Democratic Party (2003)