Magazine article New Internationalist

Asleep at the Switch: The Neoliberal Drive to Cut Red Tape Is Costing Lives, Ulli Diemer Exposes the Hidden Costs of Deregulation and Privatization

Magazine article New Internationalist

Asleep at the Switch: The Neoliberal Drive to Cut Red Tape Is Costing Lives, Ulli Diemer Exposes the Hidden Costs of Deregulation and Privatization

Article excerpt

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TIME TO PLAY OUTSIDE IF YOU'RE A child. Time to relax if you're an adult, do some housework, have a cup of coffee or a nice cold glass of water. Time, if you live in the small Canadian town of Walkerton, Ontario, to walk down Durham Street to join your neighbours and look at the surging Saugeen River, which has flooded its banks after unusually heavy rains. The local park, a couple of adjacent streets and several unlucky cars, are under water, but since everyone is safe the property damage doesn't seem too tragic.

Time, if you live on the Tollensstraat in the Dutch town of Enschede, to stop what you're doing and watch the fire engines race by, headed for the paper factory down the street where, it seems, a fire has broken out. Time, just enough time, to grab the children and run back into the house when two explosions at the burning factory rattle windows and send debris hurtling skyward. Five short minutes later, time runs out. The supposed paper factory is actually SE Fireworks and at 3.30pm 100 tons of explosives ignite in a third and devastating explosion. In the Tollensstraat, not one house is left standing. In the surrounding working-class neighbourhood of Mekkelholt, 400 houses are utterly destroyed and another 1,000 are damaged. At least 20 people lie dead, more than 900 others are injured.

In the days that follow, disbelief and shock give way to anger and a demand for answers. SE Fireworks, it turns out, has been operating for years in open violation of the most basic safety procedures, yet government inspectors routinely rubber-stamped operating permits, while local authorities and emergency services were not even informed that a fireworks company had been allowed to set up operations in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. The Dutch Government, it appears, has been criminally negligent.

At that same moment, several thousand kilometres away in Walkerton, the day is tranquil and seemingly ordinary. But invisibly, below the surface, something has changed, and though its citizens don't know it yet, Walkerton will never be the same. Water contaminated with cattle manure has entered the poorly sealed wells from which Walkerton draws its water, passed through an inadequately maintained water treatment plant in which the chlorination system is malfunctioning, and is now being pumped into every home. Within days, seven people are dead and another 2,000, almost half the town's population, have been taken violently ill.

In Walkerton too, in the days and weeks that follow, there is anger and a demand for answers. Residents learn that Ontario's Conservative provincial government, responsible for drinking water safety in the province, has deliberately dismantled vital parts of the public-health infrastructure in the name of cutting 'red tape'. The Government, it turns out, has knowingly ignored repeated warnings from its own experts and agencies that its ill-considered cutbacks in environmental and health protection are jeopardizing public health. Committed to a 'free market' agenda of 'downsizing government', it has laid the groundwork for a disaster by cutting inspection staff, shutting down testing labs and eliminating reporting and enforcement procedures.

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Rolling back safety

The Enschede and Walkerton tragedies are ominous portents - deadly instances of a frightening trend in industrial nations. Governments are abdicating or 'downsizing' even those regulatory and protective functions essential for ensuring public safety, or abandoning them to unaccountable private interests. The results can be tragic.

In Turkey, the death toll in the August 1999 earthquake is far higher than it need have been because many buildings supposedly constructed to withstand an earthquake turn out to have been built in violation of building standards. Civic officials are revealed to have colluded with contractors to certify substandard buildings. …

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