Whenever government allows a fox to guard the hen house, disaster for the hens is pretty much guaranteed. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations appointed industry "foxes" to oversee regulatory agencies like the FDA, the SEC, and the Minerals Management Service.
Negligent, if not corrupt, government oversight played prominent roles in such disasters as the Gulf Oil spill, Massey Energy's deadly coal mine disaster and, of course, the crippling financial crises that won't go away.
But the federal level is not the only layer of government where the foxes guard the hen house.
Let's look at the state of Utah. The state Air Quality Board is the primary air-quality policy maker for the state of Utah and the overseer of the Division of Air Quality, the enforcement agency. Together they are charged with protecting the public from unhealthy air pollution.
Unfortunately, they, too, operate a hen house.
At a hearing last month when the board voted to change the State Implementation Plan to allow Rio Tinto to expand its Kennecott operation and pollute more, the board listened to what was essentially a sales pitch for the expansion, given not by Rio Tinto, but by the Division of Air Quality.
You read that right. The state agency whose mission it is to protect air quality acted as the pitchman for Rio Tinto, the state's biggest polluter. No counter presentation was permitted, no opponents were allowed to speak or ask questions. Groups opposed to Rio Tinto's expansion were limited to prior submissions of written comments and their testimony at a previous hearing that the Air Quality Board did not attend. Technical analyses by highly qualified opponents were never addressed.
It gets better. In a move as rife with conflict of interest as making Ayman al-Zawahiri head of homeland security, the board has just elevated one of its members a Rio Tinto manager to the position of board chairman.
To be fair, this is not about personalities. By all accounts the newly elected chair is well respected and has properly recused himself from voting on issues related to Rio Tinto. Nonetheless, the prominent, even if silent, presence of a Rio Tinto representative while others discuss the case for letting Rio Tinto pollute more can't be dismissed as benign. Can you imagine a judge allowing a defendant to sit silently at the table next to the jurors while they deliberate his fate?
The presence of Rio Tinto and other industries in the hen house begs the question of who unlocked the door and let them in. For the answer we need only look at the Legislature and the laws they have passed over the years dictating the makeup of the Air Quality Board, demonstrating their persistent bias for industry and against environmental and public health protection.
The Utah Air Conservation Act requires that the 11 board members, who decide how much pollution is safe for the community, be appointed by the governor and include representatives of fossil fuel industries, mining, manufacturing (in other words, the polluters), agriculture, and county and municipal governments which almost always align themselves with the polluters.
There is only one physician allowed on the board, and one representative of the environmental community. With this composition, the board is virtually assured of allowing the polluters to make the rules and approve the permits. It's like a parole board made up mostly of inmates seeking parole. But some legislators want it even more lopsided. A recent bill from Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, would eliminate even the lone environmental seat.
Utah law also prohibits more than five board members being from the same political party. Nonetheless, the DEQ website lists no board members as Democrats; just Republicans and "Independents," nearly duplicating the political profile of the Legislature.
Perhaps worst of all, this fox and hen interplay has permeated the air-quality board and division for so long that those involved no longer see the thick overlay of conflicts of interest as corrupting, or even a problem.
In that way, it is much like our air pollution. Eventually we forget what it's like to breathe clean air, or to have clean government.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.