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Editorial: Government regulation too much, too little

When the subject of government regulation comes up in political discussions, it generally takes one of two forms. Either a particular regulation is pointless, cumbersome and expensive to comply with so it is an example of why government regulations are over-reaching, or a regulation is not in place to prevent a problem even a child would have no trouble recognizing.

In the case of the clean-up of arsenic contamination at the former Miller Chemical & Fertilizer Corporation in Whiteford, both extremes are evident in such a way as to make clear that both over-regulation and under-regulation are real problems in our country.

The undisputed problem at the site at 2425 Whiteford Road is arsenic contamination. Arsenic has been well-known as a poison for generations, and having a property contaminated with it is a bad thing. It's bad for anyone who ventures onto the contaminated land, and it's potentially bad for anyone living nearby or downstream because the poison can be blown to neighboring properties, or get into the water and flow onto downstream properties.

Operating within the law, the owners of the property had a facility there where agricultural fertilizers and pesticides were mixed. Wastewater from the process was discharged into two ponds on the site, apparently well within the limits of the law.

Arsenic contamination was found on the property, albeit after the closing of the facility, which was in its heyday in the 1970s. Curiously, though arsenic was well established and well known as a poison well before the 1970s, there was nothing in place to prevent the property from being contaminated with the chemical.

While the contamination was noted in 1984 and again in 2001, it wasn't until 2009 that a clean-up of the property was ordered by the Maryland Department of Environment. Anyone living within walking distance of such a property is likely to regard such a delay in identifying arsenic contamination as a problem that needs to be cleaned up as unnecessarily long, but that's not the half of it.

In the aftermath of the order being issued, and with no real objection on the part of the corporate owners of Miller Chemical & Fertilizer, it still took from 2009 until now before any clean-up could begin. Why? According to the Maryland Department of Environment, it took that long for the company contracted to do the work to get the more than two dozen permits needed for the work to be done legally.

The situation is backward. Anyone with a lick of sense and the clarity of 20/20 hindsight can safely and fairly decree that more regulation was needed when the ponds were being used as wastewater dumping sites, and a more expedited process was called for when it came time to clean up the mess.

The unfortunate political reality of a situation like this one is that a little creative presentation make it a fine example for anyone making the case that government regulation is cumbersome and unnecessary (as in, "When they tried to clean it up, it took almost four years to just to get 25 permits") and also to make the case that there isn't sufficient government regulation of businesses that have the potential to contaminate neighboring properties (as in, "They were allowed to dump arsenic in an open pond for years").

Political leanings all too often define how a particular problem is seen, and solutions end up being based in general ideology rather than the specifics of what is called for in a particular situation. Extremes end up carrying the day.

In the Whiteford case, the extreme views that government regulation is bad or that government regulation saves us from errant neighbors, are both shown to be wrong. If reasonable government regulation had been in place to prevent arsenic contamination, the problem might not be there today; if reasonable government regulation were in place today, it wouldn't have taken four years to get permits to clean up a mess.

The problem now is there's no place to apply for the kind of permit needed to clean up the mess that led to this kind of mindlessness in government regulation.

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