Crime and punishment

Chinese authorities have “detained” ten top executives at the Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Company, which was responsible for the facility that exploded on Wednesday in the port city of Tianjin. The death toll from that explosion has reached 114, with 57 people still missing and environmental hazards (including “several hundred tons of sodium cyanide“) still a major concern. The Chinese government is promising a “thorough investigation” into the incident.

Meanwhile, in the good old USA, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently caused an environmental catastrophe of its own, spilling toxic mine wastewater out of the Gold King mine in Silverton, Colorado, contaminating rivers in three states and causing a critical freshwater shortage for the Navajo Nation. Will there be an investigation into the accident? Probably, since there are a whole bunch of Republicans in Congress who will seize any opportunity to go after the EPA on ideological grounds. But that investigation will almost certainly be so politicized as to be worthless in actually preventing a similar situation from happening again, or even in seeing that the people responsible are punished.

Leaving the EPA aside, it’s exceedingly unlikely that any punishment will ever be levied at the various owners of the Gold King mine, who have left it abandoned and unmaintained for almost a century, which is how it was allowed to accumulate all that toxic wastewater in the first place. While the EPA spill earlier this month was dramatic, wastewater leaks from the Gold King and other mines like it over the past several years have killed off the river life in the upper part of Colorado’s Animas River basin. Apparently you’re allowed to own an ongoing environmental disaster in the United States without having any legal responsibility for fixing it. Why? Who knows!

I contrast these two situations not to argue that China is better than the US, on environmental issues or anything else. But it is pretty amazing that the hint of negligence will get top businessmen in trouble with Chinese authorities, while obvious, blatant, should-have-a-big-neon-sign-that-says-NEGLIGENCE-around-its-neck negligence here in the US won’t even cause dilapidated mine owners to experience the slightest inconvenience.

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