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In the wee hours of August 10, the Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases facility exploded next to a residential area in Toronto. Two people died, and the explosion caused severe local disruption: the 401 highway was closed, and over 12,000 residents within a 1.6 kilometre area were evacuated. Most local residents were allowed back a day later, but some were kept away for days, mainly because of concerns about asbestos. The Ministry of the Environment ordered Sunrise to clean up the area, but city staff took over the job this weekend. Newspaper reports say asbestos continues to be found in sites that had been re-opened, such as a nearby park.

As usual following a disaster, much media attention is focused on whether government regulators were at fault.In this particular case, most media attention has focused on two issues: whether the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) can be trusted, and whether municipalities should do more to keep propane facilities away from residential areas. (more on this in a later blog.) Both the city of Toronto and the TSSA are already facing class-action lawsuits arising from the explosion.

In fact, Canadian regulators generally do a much better job preventing disasters than they do on low-level chronic problems, such as air and water pollution, poor productivity and urban sprawl. However, the public is suspicious of the TSSA because it is a self-regulatory body that the Mike Harris Conservatives spun out of the Ontario government as part of their “Common Sense Revolution”. For the previous decades, propane facilities, gas stations, amusement devices, boilers, and many other risky businesses had been directly regulated by government ministries. But to the Harris Tories, this was a waste, and the government branches were replaced by a standalone agency funded by the industries it regulates. As a private agency, the TSSA was supposed to cut the public payroll and the size of the civil service, while providing the same level of protection to the public. Did it?

There is no doubt that the TSSA cut the public payroll: civil service staff that used to be paid out of taxes are now paid out of industry levies. In some ways, the TSSA may be able to operate more cheaply, because it is exempt from government rules about procurement, employment, and access to information. But, up until now, there has been no evidence as to whether the TSSA is any more or less effective in protecting public safety than the government departments it replaced. It sometimes happens that self regulatory bodies favour their members over the public interest, but this is by no means automatic.

The TSSA has faced much criticism this week, because it did not have an accurate list of the propane facilities it regulates, and failed to shut the Sunrise facility down after some minor noncompliances were noted. To date, however, we have no evidence that the old government departments would have done a better job. Governments regularly have out of date lists, and would not be allowed by the courts to shut down regulated facilities for minor problems. Nor do we know, at present, that the deficiencies noted by TSSA inspectors had anything to do with the actual blast. On the contrary, the TSSA deserves some credit because they had regularly inspected the Sunrise facility; lots of facilities regulated by government receive few, if any, inspections.

Did self-regulation have anything to do with the occurrence of this week’s explosion? The Walkerton Inquiry proved that some of the privatizations by the Common Sense Revolution were rushed, poorly thought through, and did put the public at risk. The plaintiffs in the proposed class actions will likely try to prove that the creation of the TSSA did the same. But, so far, there’s no reason to believe it.

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