EDITORIAL Long-ago blast demonstrates the necessity of regulations

July 18, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

In Sunday’s edition, former Observer-Reporter executive editor Park Burroughs outlined in vivid detail one of Washington’s greatest calamities.

It happened July 17, 1891, when a load of nitroglycerin and dynamite being hauled on a wagon on East Maiden Street blew up. The force of the blast was so great windows rattled in Canonsburg, horses were startled in East Finley Township and the ground near the blast site was littered with dead birds.

There wasn’t a whole lot left of the wagon driver, either – a few pieces of his scalp, part of his backbone, a finger and a few other gruesome remnants, all of which could be picked up and deposited in a peck basket.

As the Washington Observer reported at the time, “The first thing that was seen was a tall swirling column of yellow dust rising like a water spout into the air, and this was followed almost instantly by a deafening report. Such a noise had never been heard in this place, and the great hills taking up the sound echoed and re-echoed the report as mighty thunder. The great column of smoke as it did, on reaching a height of 100 or 200 feet, spread out over the entire heavens, and soon a mist of flying splinters filled the clear morning air ... A great cloud of dust hung angrily over the spot for a moment and then came an awful stillness broken by the shrill whistles of locomotives.”

How did a catastrophe of this proportion occur? First, the wagon was hauling extraordinarily volatile nitroglycerin. In addition, it was also hauling dynamite. Both were resting on hay. And on top of it all, the wagon’s pilot was smoking a cigar.

Think about it. Nitroglycerin. Dynamite. Hay. And a cigar.

What could have possibly gone wrong?

One hesitates to say “never,” but the likelihood of such an accident occurring in today’s world is highly remote. The hauling of substances like nitroglycerin is now tightly regulated. And the need for that is plain. If we did not subject activities like this to regulation, we would show ourselves to be completely and utterly blind to the mistakes and lessons of the past, and would be opening the door to needless loss of life and property damage.

It is popular in this country and elsewhere to pillory regulation and red tape. President Trump signed an executive order earlier this year directing federal agencies to scratch out two regulations for every one they add. Across the Atlantic, Britain added a “one-in, two-out” rule in 2005, and expanded it to “one-in, three out” 10 years after. But the UK might well start tempering its enthusiasm for deregulation in the wake of last month’s Grenfell Tower disaster, where 80 residents of a high-rise apartment building in London were killed in an inferno that is believed to have spread due to the cladding that was applied when the structure was refurbished. The tower also lacked a sprinkler system. Sam Webb, a British architect and fire expert, told the BBC his country’s deregulation frenzy “means our current safety standards just aren’t good enough.”

Regulations should be thoughtfully considered before they become law, and continually re-evaluated to make sure they are beneficial and relevant. But heedlessly stripping them away can have potentially dire consequences.

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