Supporters of clean air and water this week pushed back against a Republican Party proposal to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job to protect Americans from air pollution.
As Republicans pressed forward with an anti-EPA bill, a coalition of environmental, public health and civil rights organizations emphasized the need for government oversight over coal and oil companies who are among the biggest polluters in the country and the biggest contributors to what amounts to a public health crisis. Now more than ever, this coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, the NAACP and Physicians for Social Responsibility, insisted the EPA is needed to lead the effort to regulate pollution-causing emissions.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, explained, "Coal and oil are polluting our air. They give us asthma. They're fouling our water with cancer-causing toxins."
"Coal and oil are polluting our political process and they are draining the life from our economy," he told reporters on a conference call sponsored by the coalition. "As we've seen time and time again with situations like the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, big oil and dirty coal can't be trusted to police themselves."
"To these polluters, our health matters less than our profits," he said.
It is the Environmental Protection Agency that stands in the way of their unrestrained habits that are making us sick. "There's a reason why 'protection' is the EPA's middle name," Brune said.
With the agency's effort to regulation pollution, the data shows that as many as 1.7 million asthma attacks and $110 billion in health costs were avoided in 2010 alone, Brune explained.
But the effort to protect public health hasn't ended. EPA oversight should be expanded to protect the public from the adverse affects of pollution that causes global warming and to ensure an equitable enforcement of standards for all communities in the country.
Jacqueline Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the NAACP, discussed ongoing racially- and class-based inequalities in terms of exposure to harmful toxins and pollution.
"Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to airborne toxins that lead to respiratory illnesses ranging to asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD, and even lung cancer and other illnesses," Patterson noted.
Based on studies conducted by her office, Patterson added, 71 percent of African Americans live in counties that are in violation of federal clean air standards. Almost eight in 10 African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Within a three-mile radius of any coal-fired power plant, the population is disproportionately people of color. People who are likely to live within what is considered to be the "detrimental" range of a coal-fired power plant earn about 15 percent less than the national average income.
Simply put, race and income are the top two factors in considering where to locate pollution-causing facilities like coal-fired power plants.
Patterson also cited studies that indicate pollution from coal-fired power plants cause more than 30,000 premature deaths, 7,000 asthma-related emergency room visits, and 18,000 cases of chronic bronchitis each year. Asthma related illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths occur among African Americans at far higher rates than among whites, she said.
Economist Matthew Kotchen rejected claims that EPA regulation of pollution weakens the economy. He noted that the harmful effects of air pollution increase overall healthcare costs, reduce property values, and lower work productivity due to more sick days, all of which result in quantifiable harmful economic effects that outweigh lost profits for specific oil and coal corporations. "There are real costs associated with this air pollution," he said. But unfortunately, as pollution standards exist now, corporations have little or no incentive to study and account for these costs.
Kotchen said that a federal cap-and-trade program or EPA-originated safeguards extended to such emissions would create the incentive for polluting corporations to consider the broader economic consequences of air pollution.
Americans in large majorities agree that the EPA needs to be allowed to continue to fight harmful air pollution. New polling data released by Public Policy Polling this week showed the public disagrees with the Republicans' efforts to keep the EPA from doing its job.
Specifically, the poll was conducted in the districts of leading Republicans who advocate placing limits on EPA regulation of air pollution. According to Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, the findings showed strong opposition even among independents and Republicans to this agenda.
"What we see in the findings across the board is a strikingly consistent affirmation by Americans that they support the EPA and its anti-pollution, pro-public health role," Jensen told reporters. "Whether they are in rural or urban districts, Americans clearly believe that Congress should be doing what's best for public health, not polluters."
Pete Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sponsored the surveys, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chair, "and other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will now be hard-pressed to ignore the fact that their constituents want Congress to let the EPA do its job of safeguarding the health of American families."
Upton's committee is currently considering a bill that would weaken Clean Air Act provisions and prevent the EPA from regulating air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Kristen Welker-Hood, director of environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility, explained that greenhouse gases actually contribute to the development of smog and harmful pollutants that adversely affect public health. She said that the Republican bill would "absolutely have an impact on the ability of the EPA to regulate air pollutants."