I don’t know why but I’ve become absorbed by the machinations of bureaucrats – it’s a bit like watching Alice in Wonderland: Down is up, and up is down.
Take hard work.
Businessmen work hard to get ahead.
Students work hard for better grades.
But who joins a bureaucracy to work hard?
The most prominent bureaucracies in North Carolina are the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DHHS has the most problems. Because it’s biggest. But lately, with the Duke coal ash spill, DENR’s been in the most trouble.
For several years, on behalf of a client, I’ve been studying how DENR works with corporations (in this case Alcoa) and it’s not as dull as it sounds.
DENR’s supposed to protect the environment but how the bureaucrats go about it depends on their individual wants and needs which brings us back to hard work.
The bureaucrats, basically, don’t go out and find pollution. Instead they tell a corporation like Alcoa or Duke Power, File a report, tell us if you’ve polluted, and what you’re doing about it.
The corporation hires lawyers who file hundreds or thousands of pages of reports that primarily say, We haven’t polluted very much and none of the pollution is a threat to anyone, so we simply propose to monitor it.
After that, corporate lawyers go on filing reports for years saying, We’re still monitoring – and DENR bureaucrats stamp the reports and file them and that’s it.
No one breaks a sweat.
Of course, sometimes, an unfortunate bureaucrat runs into a trickier problem.
A couple of years ago a group of corporations who own dams on rivers had to renew their ‘State Water Quality Certificates,’ so they all got together with the bureaucrats at DENR and more or less said, Let’s all agree this isn’t going to be a hardship for anyone.
That was civil enough but the bureaucrats looking at the businessmen, right off, spotted an unspoken undercurrent. Duke Energy and Progress Energy had plenty of friends in places like the Governor’s office and the legislature and, of course, no bureaucrat in his right mind wants to get on the wrong side of a powerful politician – everyone of those corporations got their ‘Water Quality Certificate.’
And that’s, more or less, how DENR’s worked for years.
The bureaucrats survived peacefully by not offending powerful politicians and, beyond that, avoided over-exertion. It all worked out happily until, as almost always happens, there was a day of reckoning.
The coal ash spill.
Suddenly the bureaucrats found themselves being slammed in newspapers and on the six o’clock news and found themselves answering awkward questions at press conferences. They were in a media maelstrom.
Then a worse blow fell: Subpoenas started arriving on their desks from the U.S. Attorney.
And, in all likelihood, an even worse blow is in the works: The politicians, who they’ve been accommodating for years, are going to say, Don’t blame us. If the bureaucrats had done their job we wouldn’t have had a spill.