Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency celebrated its 40th anniversary. The agency’s work has led to cleaner air, cleaner water, and better health for many Californians. During the EPA’s first 20 years alone, it prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and almost 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis by reducing dangerous air pollution. And gone are the days of rivers so polluted they catch on fire, and skies so polluted they block out the sun.
Sadly, however, the job is far from done. Most notably, Californians and Americans across the country are still coping with unhealthy levels of air pollution. It is critical that EPA continue its work to protect our health.
This past weekend, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a funding bill that amounts to the biggest attack on clean air and clean water in recent history. The bill, known as the Continuing Resolution, which passed by a vote of 235-189, bars the EPA from taking any action to clean up dangerous carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial pollution sources.
The bill also blocks EPA from restoring Clean Water Act protections for many of the nation’s most vulnerable waterways, including those that feed into drinking water supplies for more than 117 million Americans, and seven million Californians.
Unchecked global warming pollution threatens our health with the spread of infectious diseases, increased asthma attacks and respiratory disease, and more heat-related deaths from record-high temperatures. This air pollution also means that more of the three million Californians who suffer from asthma are rushed to the emergency room gasping for air because of respiratory problems caused by soot and smog. Neighborhoods with the dirtiest air also have the most to lose – compared to whites, people of color in California experience over seventy percent more of the dangerous air pollution coming from major greenhouse gas polluters. People in poverty also live disproportionately near these toxic-emitting facilities in our state. Cleaning up the power plants and industrial facilities that are emitting these pollutants is vital to protecting our health.
Before the Continuing Resolution passed, EPA was preparing to do just that. Over the next three years, EPA was scheduled to set long-overdue standards on soot, smog, mercury, and global warming pollution. These standards could save thousands of lives each year, prevent millions of incidents of illness, and avoid many billions of dollars in health care costs.
But lobbyists from the coal and oil industries and other polluters have pressured Congress to gut these rules. They’re running paid ads, they’re schmoozing our elected officials, and they’re predicting that these new standards will make the lights go out and destroy the American economy.
We’ve heard this sad story before. Throughout EPA’s forty year history, these same industries have spent millions of dollars trying to block or weaken countless public health standards, exaggerating the costs of cutting pollution and minimizing the public health benefits. But in the end, the standards these industries opposed ended up saving thousands of lives and cleaning up our air, land, and water. What’s more, EPA’s standards achieved these benefits at a fraction of the cost that industry lobbyists tried to scare us all into believing would be the case. In its first 20 years alone, EPA actions to reduce air pollution saved the nation an estimated $22 trillion in health care expenses and lost productivity, at a cost of $523 billion—a remarkable 40-1 benefit-cost ratio.
During the debate in Congress last week, Representative Waxman (D-Santa Monica) and Representative Capps (D-Capps) were outspoken champions for clean air. As the Senate considers this funding bill this week, Senators Feinstein and Boxer should stand strong and reject these assaults on our public health.
Californians deserve cleaner air and better health, and for 40 years, the EPA has been working to make this a reality. Now, as EPA looks to finish the job, we can’t let industry insiders and their friends in Congress get in the way, compromising our health and the health of our families.
Sean Carroll is the federal field associate with Environment California, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working to protect clean air, clean water, and unique open places.
Ana Mascarenas is the policy and communications coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, which informs the medical community and policymakers about toxic threats, promotes safer practices, and strengthens community groups to engage in public health advocacy.