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Russia's riverboats, Texas' light bulbs: And now for a little regulation

July 12, 2011 | 12:22 pm

Survivor You know the saying, "When in Rome ... "?

Well, here's "the Volga variation" of that one:  "When in Russia, don't ride the riverboats."

Over the weekend, the passenger boat Bulgaria sank on the Volga River, and at least 58 people are confirmed dead so far.

Sure, accidents happen. But as The Times' Sergei L. Loiko detailed, this one was an accident waiting to happen.

The riverboat Bulgaria, which sank Sunday about two miles from shore, was not licensed to carry passengers, had not undergone major repairs in 30 years and was operating without its left engine, said Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the Russian prosecutor general's office.

Volga region transport prosecutor Sergei Belov said fuel for the left engine had been pumped to the boat's right side, which resulted in the boat listing 4 degrees. In addition, the 56-year-old double-decker pleasure cruiser was carrying about 50 passengers more than it was built to handle, Belov said.

Which sounds bad. But one bad apple, right?  Uh, no:

A 2010 report by the federal Sea and River Fleet Agency said that Russia's 1,100 passenger transport vessels were aging and that many should be "written off en masse." It said that "tourist cruise boats were in a particularly bad state."

And these were the guys we spent the Cold War being afraid of?

It reminds me of the story a Times foreign correspondent once told me of an Aeroflot flight he took. He recalled waving to his family before takeoff -- made easier by the fact that the plane had no glass in the window by his seat.

I also thought about this Russian regulatory lapse in light of Sunday's Times story on a move by Texas to skirt federal regulations that phase out old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient lamps.  

Texas hopes to get around the law with a measure recently signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry declaring that incandescent bulbs -- if made and sold only in Texas -- do not involve interstate commerce and therefore are not subject to federal regulation.

"I think that Texans as a whole are tired of the federal government trying to micromanage our lives," said George Lavender, a Republican state representative who sponsored the legislation.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that Lavender would like his state's regulatory environment to be like Russia's. But let's face it, this micromanagement argument can be a slippery slope: One day it's anything goes with light bulbs; the next, oh, I don't know, maybe a big dang oil rig blows up in the Gulf of Mexico.

You know, an oil rig you need because you refuse to endorse any kind of energy efficiency?

Not buying that argument?  Check out these eerily similar passages, first, from the Russia story ...

"The Volga tragedy tells us about the inability of the authorities to control the situation in all spheres of the country, including the shipbuilding industry, which is all but very dead," lawmaker Anton Belyakov said in an interview. "I am sure they will find the captain, who also sank with the boat, and the shipping company guilty of the accident and all will be forgotten until a new tragedy."

... and then from an April 20 Times Op-Ed article by Charles Wohlforth, on the first anniversary of the BP oil spill:

Now, the anniversary of the BP spill comes with a feeling of "Whatever happened to ... ?" Legislative efforts have stalled, and they're not particularly ambitious anyway. The BP spill spawned a commission, but its recommendations to Congress have been ignored.

So here's my two-cents' worth for today:

Let's get on board with this energy-efficiency thing.

But let's not get on board any riverboats in Russia.


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Photo: A relative greets a survivor in Kazan, Russia. Credit: Tatarstan Emergencies Ministry

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