I drove into my little rural Maryland gas station and Gracie told me the upsetting news.
After all these years, when the tanks were emptied, she would have to shut down.
My first thoughts were selfish. Where would we get the town news? Or meet the neighbors? Or have the gasoline pumped for you? Or be on the receiving end of all the other little helps from her and her little staff? Or just seeing feisty Gracie rejoicing at the weather or some good news — or railing at some injustice?
But here she was crying.
It must have been the rapacious oil companies, putting profits before people, driving the little guy out of business with cutthroat competition. She was wary of the big fellows and worried about competition but the nearest competition was miles away and it was another little guy.
Fuel suppliers were a problem since she was so far off the beaten path, in our little community on a peninsula and her station’s total earnings for the year were hardly worth the effort.
Gracie’s net was extremely modest but she even bragged how low it was and that even so she did not need any government help and, in fact, saved much of the little she earned.
She did find new supplier, but one who was not only an entrepreneur but another common hero like herself, a chip off the old rural block.
So if it was not the nasty capitalists, what brought her down? It was the good folks from the government who are here to help.
What was her crime? Her gas tanks were getting old and the Environmental Protection Agency was looking to protect the Chesapeake Bay from some possible future pollution.
No, not present pollution but maybe something way out in the remote future, like global warming she explained mischievously on this cold March day.
She could not afford new underground tanks.
Believe it or not our little community once boasted two little gas stations but the older one was also shut down by the EPA gestapo. In that case there actually was some discharge but it was so minor there was no way it could reach the Bay, causing less pollution than the government inspectors used to find us and enforce their little laws.
The two were by no means alone.
I wrote in the late 1990s and found the number of stations closed by the first stage of crack-down totaled perhaps 20,000. There were 1,400 in little Maryland alone at a cost of $80,000 to comply.
The number since is apparently a state secret but EPA brags of “many” shutdowns and a rough estimate between the number of "confirmed releases" from tanks and "cleanups initiated" is over 20,000 but this does not count those like Gracie who did not have releases but were forced to close anyway, certainly a much larger number.
And rules were tightened in 2015, so we can expect more.
How many people lost jobs?
We will never know but it must be in the hundreds of thousands from this one regulation.
Well, at least it was the will of the people? Polls and focus groups do show that most Americans favor government regulation to protect them from harm, very much including the environment.
But they also show they had given little thought to the issue and had even less knowledge of enforcement or effectiveness. They understood that some were harmed by over-regulation but did not know there were costs to society as well.
That is why government bureaucrats and ecological lobbyists so exaggerate the harms and ignore the costs, raising funds by frightening the uninformed.
The con may be abating.
In recent years, polls show that people now think that there is too much regulation in general and rate EPA one of the least trusted of government agencies.
President Trump responded to this new awareness by cutting EPAs budget more than any other agency in an attempt to limit its job-killing regulations, proposing to cut spending there by 31 percent.
Anyone trying to understand why Donald Trump did so well in rural America offsetting majorities in liberal cities and tony suburbs to become president of the U.S. need only look at those closure numbers, and the jobs lost as a result.
Then multiply it by coal miners, fracking steamfitters, factory workers, machinists, farmers and the rest to understand why Trump’s promise of relief from overbearing government regulations hit home to so many.
Someday the government "experts" in Washington, D.C. may learn that people, even modest people, are more important than so-called impurities in dirt or grass.
All this will be too late for our community and Gracie.
Still, she will retire with dignity with her modest nest egg but we will all be the lesser for it.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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