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The US needs better oversight of crude oil cargo

An alarming report issued by the federal Transportation Department’s inspector general concluded that regulators are failing to adequately safeguard the nation’s freight rail shipments of crude oil and other hazardous cargo.

The audit, released last week, concluded that while there had been a significant increase nationwide in rail shipments of crude oil — from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 407,761 in 2013 — the Federal Railroad Administration did not conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the risks associated with the shipments. The report said the agency does not take into account such significant factors as the condition of the infrastructure, shippers’ records of complying with regulations and how close the rails are to population centers.

Those findings are bad enough, but the audit also determined that, even when regulators go after violators, they don’t do a good enough job.

The report said that, while regulators pursue civil fines for violations regarding hazardous materials, they do not adjust the sums based on the severity of the infractions or refer cases for criminal investigations. Based on a random sample of violations issued in a five-year period, the inspector general estimated that 20 percent of violations may have warranted but did not received those referrals.

That means even firms that were paying for violations might have been unjustly avoiding higher fines or, worse, criminal prosecution.

The audit’s conclusion said it all: “Effective oversight of this risk prone area requires thorough, timely inspections as well as the application of deterrent penalties when violations occur.” The agency agreed, but simply acknowledging the problems is not enough. Focused, forceful oversight is imperative.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1

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Iran’s nuclear accord has an impact on elections

The outcome of Iran’s recent elections to both its parliament and the key Assembly of Experts were favorable to the United States and to prospects for peace in the Middle East.

The voting followed the agreement last year between Iran and international powers China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States in which Iran dropped its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity in return for the removal of economic and financial sanctions. That accord has prompted a resurgence of a more normal economic relationship between Iran and the rest of the world, except the United States, where Congress continues to drag its feet on sanctions.

The results of the Iranian elections boosted the standing of moderates in both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which will mean greater support for the positions of President Hassan Rouhani, elected in 2013, who is the shepherd of the nuclear sanctions accord.

Yet it is still important to remember that, in spite of the moderates’ gains, Iran remains dominated by hard-line Islamic conservatives who run the security forces, the judiciary and much of the country’s economy, as well as the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The assembly “disqualified” thousands of candidates who had hoped to run.

The Feb. 26 elections were as free and fair as they could be in a country still ruled by religious figures led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76. Young voters played an important role, but “democratic reform” is not likely to be part of the Tehran government’s agenda. There was no foreign influence in the elections, apart from the positive impact of the nuclear agreement and the resulting economic revival.

It’s time for U.S. companies to be able to reap the benefits. For them to have a level playing field on which to compete with the Europeans and China in Iran’s opening economy, Congress must complete America’s part of sanctions removal.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,March 2

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