By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Has Obama thrown over the health of the American people to win a little love from pro-business forces by nixing tighter smog standards?
That seems to be the question of the week, following the Administration’s surprise announcement last Friday that stronger smog controls being readied by the EPA would have to wait until 2013.
It’s not hard to see how Obama’s about-face on clean air could be smart politically. It could win favor with the centrist or independent voters he must woo in the 2012 election. Telling the EPA to backburner tighter standards could be perceived as a “pro-business” stance that would presumably play well with that audience.
This political expediency clearly has angered the cadre of environmentalist groups that have championed Obama’s progressive causes, but where will they run to? Republican frontrunner Rick Perry, who vowed Monday that if he’s elected president, EPA officials “are going to be pro-business, and there’s not going to be any apologies to anybody about it.” (History lesson for later: How the EPA was formed to regulate pollution by industries that had failed to self-regulate.)
Environmentalists, however, are becoming increasingly discontented with being treated as a captive audience, and they’re furious about Obama’s air kiss to the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, both of which had lobbied the White House directly to call off stricter smog standards.
The business groups had argued that the cost of meeting a new standard would be a jobs-killer. Environmental groups don’t buy it, and are venting their disappointment.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, says Obama’s decision is the worst one he’s seen by a Democratic president during 30 years in Washington.
“Letting the polluters off the hook won’t create jobs and won’t fuel innovation. But it will cost lives and endanger the health of children and seniors. It is terrible policy and terrible politics,” he says in a note to his membership.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) reported Wednesday that more than 36,000 people have already emailed the White House to express their disappointment with Obama’s backtracking, and urged its supporters to add their voices.
“You’ve been dumped! Give the President a piece of your mind,” reads a similar appeal from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to its members. President Frances Beinecke says constituents have jammed lines to the White House switchboard since Obama’s announcement and urges supporters keep trying if they can’t get through. Her note included the White House comment phone number: 202-456-1111.
The American Lung Association (ALA) is another group that’s steamed over the Obama move, which instructs the EPA to move back by two years its reconsideration of a 2008 smog standard that failed to reach the scientific benchmark for public health.
The 2008 standard was set at 75 ppb, but scientists advising the EPA say the threshold for ground-level ozone, or smog, should be set at 60 ppb to assure human health.
Because the 2008 Bush-era standard was never implemented – the ALA and enviro groups sued the Administration to set a standard based on health criteria as required by a 2001 US Supreme Court decision – the standard currently being enforced is the one set in 1997. That 14-year-old standard, set at 84 ppb, is woefully outdated, say advocacy groups.
Businesses lobbying the White House had argued that the cost of complying with the proposed stricter standard (of 60 ppb) would approach $100 billion, and force businesses to delay new hiring as they paid for pollution controls.The US Chamber also noted that cash-strapped cities already struggle to meet, and in some cases have failed to meet, the current standard, a truth that can be verified on the EPA’s website.
The EPA has countered that the new rule could save Americans about the same amount, $100 billion, in health care costs.
The American Lung Association, however, says such justifications should not be necessary. The primary consideration for a health standard should be what is healthy.
Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association, points out that the Supreme Court decision determined that the federal government must base its air quality standards on scientific criteria – not the price tag of implementation.
Meeting a stronger standard for smog would require oil and gas industries, coal-fired power plants, factories releasing fumes from solvents and cities with traffic congestion to reduce and better control their emissions, she said. Cities could help by reducing traffic emissions via public transportation, telecommuting and so forth.
Refineries, certain heavy industries and vehicles provide the VOCs and nitrous oxide (NOx) that combine with sunlight to create the odorless, stealth ground-level ozone pollution that afflicts many metropolitan areas.
“Smog is invisible, but it is extremely harmful,” Nolen said.
Ozone pollution irritates and burns the lungs, which can send asthmatics, children, senior citizens and even active people who exercise outdoors to the emergency room.
The science on the long-term effects of breathing ozone is still emerging. But EPA modeling suggests that up to 12,000 premature deaths might be avoided by 2020 if the 60 ppb standard that scientists view as protective were adopted today, Nolen said.
With the delay ordered by Obama, however, it will be 2013 before the EPA can begin the revision process, and another three years of planning before localities are required to adhere to it.
Those five years could create a lot of damage to American’s with respiratory issues, and even to healthy individuals. A study of life guards in Galveston tested their lung capacity early in the day, when pollution is lower, and at the end of the day, when it tends to be higher. It found that on high ozone, or high particulate, pollution days, the life guards’ lung function declined during the day.
Nolen says the lung association often hears from people who report stinging eyes, burning lungs, coughing and wheezing on high alert days.
“People are paying the cost for the ozone that we have in the air now. They are children, they are seniors; healthy adults who are exercising outdoors, their lungs are affected. They are paying the price right now.”
“Those costs need to be recognized.”
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