Strictly Business: Weighing what could happen

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoAaron Corvin, Columbian business reporter

Anyone who glances over my columns knows I'm a rabid reader.

Books, newspapers, magazines — I'm a junkie.

And though I definitely don't always succeed, I also try to make sense of the pieces in my readings that can reveal a larger truth.

Reading and dot-connecting, of course, go hand in hand.

Take, for instance, Jose Saramago's brilliant book "Blindness." A line in it floored me: "If, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt."

Let that sink in. I had to.

Then I connected that weighty dot to another one: West Virginia, where 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal leaked from an antiquated storage tank into the Elk River. It left more than 300,000 people without usable water for days.

Many arrows point to neglect on the part of Freedom Industries, the owner of the storage tank, and a look-the-other-way attitude on the part of regulators — an attitude supported by overwhelming corporate influence and glaring gaps in government inspections under anti-pollution laws.

It's a shameful situation that makes me mull Saramago's line, a situation in which no one weighed up the consequences of allowing Freedom Industries to escape the kind of regulatory scrutiny that enforces public safety.

Time and again, we've seen what happens when we look the other way, when we don't contemplate the potential impacts of our actions before it's too late. To be sure, there's evidence we've learned from our mistakes. We've engaged in our democracy and passed laws requiring public review processes, accountability and enforcement mechanisms.

Do these measures aggravate some businesses? Of course. And some of us can tell stories about falling into a thicket of confusing, bureaucratic rules.

But enlightened businesses know that taking proactive safety steps and embracing hard looks by public-interest inspectors ultimately leads to better organizations and outcomes.

Researchers at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries recently studied a decade's worth of inspection data. They found significant decreases in claims and claim costs after a safety inspection or safety consultation.

So, weighing up the consequences is not only the right thing to do, but it's also good for the bottom line.

And considering the ramifications before action occurs is exactly what we're doing now in Clark County, as the state Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council conducts a lengthy, public examination of the potential environmental hazards of a proposal to build the Northwest's largest oil-by-rail facility at the Port of Vancouver.

Whatever you think of the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies, at least there's a process in place to thoroughly measure the potential consequences now instead of wishing we had later. By considering the imaginable terrible consequences, we have a good shot at avoiding them.

Imagine how different things could have been in West Virginia — or many other places — if similar care had been taken.