Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Tale Of Government Dysfunction

Long time readers should know that this post marks my one thousandth post here at blogger. To celebrate, I figured I'd finally get around to posting a story I've had kicking around since the summer. It's a story that I experienced firsthand, involving the utter incompetence of the regulatory structure. As many of you may know, I work for a laboratory primarily in the customer service and regulatory end of things, focusing mostly on drinking water regulation. We have over 100 public water system clients throughout the state of Connecticut, with these systems ranging to large municipal systems to small churches and gas stations.

Over the summer, on a routine sampling, one of our customers had a water sample test positive for e.coli bacteria. Now while this was not the same strand of e.coli (0157h7) involved in the ground beef outbreaks, it certainly was a health concern. To make matters complicated, this customer was a restaurant which relied on their water supply. Now here was a situation where even myself as a libertarian could understand the value of the concept of public health. There's something to be said for keeping the unwitting public from consuming water that may not be safe. And you would think a problem like this would be a simple one to solve, the exact sort of problem our regulatory system was designed to address. But if you thought that, you'd be wrong.

The problem lies in regulation that are more focussed on compliance than solutions and in a system that necessarily delegates authority to different areas. With the positive e.coli result, we were required by law to notify the state department of public health. We were also required to take a set of follow up samples, several of which also indicated the presence of e.coli. Per our procedure, we notified our client immediately. We did not notify the local health department because we had not been authorized to do so by our client and were not required to do so by law.

Our client began to take steps to remedy the situation, but did not notify the local health department. The local health department was notified several days later, after the information had been processed by the state department of public health. The state health department merely passed this information along because they literally have no power to do anything about it. The state can require monitoring and they can require public notification of bad results, but they have no power to shut a water system down, nor do they have any power to remedy this sort of situation. The local health department doesn't have the authority to shut a water system down either, but they do have the authority to close down the restaurants in their jurisdiction, which is precisely what happened in this situation.

The restaurant stayed closed for several days as our client attempted to figure out what had caused the contamination. The state was no help whatsoever and no one in the local health department was very familiar with water systems. Eventually, the problem was solved, mostly with help in advice from our laboratory. After a set of test results was negative for e.coli, the restaurant was allowed to reopen. But at no time did regulation help to solve the problem, nor did regulation work very effectively to protect public health. Sure, there are some fixes that could be made, namely in the form of better notification requirements, but this doesn't change the fact that the basic structure of our drinking water monitoring system doesn't provide a mechanism to actually fix problems, nor does it change the fact that the local health departments who ultimately may have authority over these sorts of drinking water issues probably do not have much drinking water expertise. Perhaps there are more answers, but it seems to me that those answers involve more public sector employees in the field and great deal more money in tax dollars.

This wasn't a complete disaster, but I bring it up to point out that all the laws and all the planning in the world can't fix all of our problems and can't make the world safe. This was a relatively simple problem, but our existing structure really wasn't geared to handle it. I don't find this to be a failure of imagination, but a literal example of how government works- or doesn't work. If it proves difficult to regulate safe water, how is the government supposed to regulate our economy out of a recession?


Post a Comment

<< Home