GASPing For Air In Alabama

BY ON June 12, 2012

Child wearing surgical mask with slogan Our Air Isn't Healthy

This editorial was written by Erica Frey-Delaportas, Outreach Coordinator for GASP:

Political Mantras Made into Sound Bytes Should Not Be Tolerated When The Public’s Health Is At Stake

Misrepresentation of the facts

I understand the humor in catch phrases and sound bytes and why we as a society seem to be drawn to using them. But, “Houston, we have a problem,” when substantial environmental issues that have serious impacts on public health continue to be clustered under the umbrella of political labels and catch phrases because of potential economic implications. It is time for some introspection about such naive oversimplification. Case in point…“Regulations are bad.”

Last September brought an unexpected announcement from President Obama expressing that the state of the economy did not warrant spending money on strengthening ozone regulations. Ground level ozone (aka smog) is a gas considered detrimental that must be controlled because it attacks lung tissue by chemically reacting with it. It causes chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. It can also reduce lung function, inflame the linings of the lungs and with repeated exposure, scar lung tissue permanently and shorten life expectancy. The Greater Birmingham area has consistently been ranked one of the worst cities in the country for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s Annual State of the Air report.

The aftermath of this declaration elicited supportive, preposterous statements, starting with Alabama’s own Jeff Sessions and industry CEO’s like Michael Morris of American Electric Power Company.

Coupling the fact that this is an election year and that “ozone season” starts in May, the public deserves a presentation of facts that allows them to grasp the “realness” of the retreat on ozone standards, instead of politicians’ and big coal industry representatives’ biased outlook with inaccurate statistics and an incomplete overview. Their “Swiss cheese” outlook is negligent and perpetuates a faulty cause and effect relationship between public health and economic productivity. The public is misinformed based on agenda and unacceptable ties with industry. We are faced with fact-twisting and an undermining of the need for healthy environmental conditions, which are paramount for a productive, prosperous, innovative America, setting an example for the world to follow.

Simply put, environmental regulations have evolved as a response to the act of self-promotion for gain at the expense of everything and everyone else. The inability to conduct successful business in an ethical, sustainable and socially conscious way is inherently what drives the need for regulation. Without them, we’d be living in a cesspool of our own filth, leading to a plethora of diseases, fatalities and an overall poor quality of life. There are hundreds of examples throughout history that provide how environmental regulations have positively affected our country and world.

When the Clean Air Act was passed forty years ago, we recognized that unregulated, uncontrollable industrial growth was leading to unsafe conditions. It shifted the paradigm that the gain of a few should not occur at the expense of the public’s health. In the last year alone, programs implemented pursuant to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 are estimated to have saved over 160,000 lives, spared Americans more than 100,000 hospital visits, and prevented millions of cases of respiratory problems.

Improved ozone standards are long overdue

Last year, opponents of strengthened ozone regulation created the faulty perception that the EPA made their recommendations ahead of schedule. In an interview, the CEO of American Electric Power Company argued for the EPA “not to change the rules- change the timeline and give industry a chance to adjust to new requirements.” Jeff Sessions stated that the EPA should’ve reconsidered the national ambient air quality standards on the schedule provided by the Clean Air Act- in 2013. He has referred to the importance of timeliness and sticking with reassessment at 5 year intervals.  The fact of the matter is they have had plenty of time to comply and adapt.

What is never stated is that our country currently does not implement the 2008 ozone standards. If we were, we would not need reassessment before 2013 as Jeff Sessions has said. You see, the Clean Air Act provides several years for states to develop their State Implementation Plans and adapt. The result: now in 2012, we are still implementing 15-year-old standards from 1997!

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a summary of the factual events surrounding the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground level ozone leading up to the President’s announcement:

You be the judge. After reading this, do you agree with reports by politicians and industry leaders that EPA has unnecessarily sped up their process for new ozone standards?

Public health vs high profits

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the results that environmental regulations can have on industry. But we must differentiate the types of effects and job-killing isn’t one of them.

Utility companies are in fact, businesses and must work within certain parameters as every other business does. Yes, they happen to supply energy on which we all depend, but should that make them exempt from cleaning up after themselves? They sell energy, most of which has irrefutable health and environmental hazards as a byproduct. Since their customer base is never ending and their workforce is massive, does that mean that they have enough leverage to do whatever they want? Like any other industry, utility business plans must involve necessary components that are specific to their product including clean up and thus should come from their bottom line. The fact that it costs money to do it correctly is not justification for calling regulations “bad for the economy.”

Recently, Alabama Power has been portrayed so positively due to the money they’ve spent on installing pollution control devices. What is not reported is that Alabama’s current state regulations don’t require them to constantly run them! When we know that 80% of the NOx emissions could potentially be reduced just by running their already installed devices, why should we all think they really care about public health just as much as their profits? Less money needs to be handed out to politicians and lobbyists and invested more in running their installed devices. Better yet, how about investing in cleaner alternatives that would transition away from the old, inefficient coal plants? The marriage between industry and politics has been deemed acceptable while the public suffers the health and environmental side effects.

With facts like these that unfortunately are a common theme across the nation, it’s hard to believe statements from industry leaders such as those from Mr. Morris, CEO of American Electric Power Company, that “he wants clean air like everyone else.”  The facts are that the rules have not changed, the timeline has given more than ample time AND his company is #169 on the Fortune 500 for 2011.

Healthy air = Healthy economy

Despite ongoing claims that environmental regulations hurt the economy, the truth is that our economy benefits when its citizens are healthy. Take the 1997 example of when Georgia’s governor said meeting new ozone levels would trigger “enormous economic and jobs consequences” for his state. However, over the next 10 years, Georgia’s GDP climbed nearly 58%. Cleaner air cuts down on missed work days, ER visits and hospital stays, saving billions in public health costs.

According to the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, Jefferson and Shelby Counties have lost $5 billion in economic investment and have had to turn down 15 manufacturing projects due to dirty air in the greater Birmingham. Changes to strengthen the air quality standards not only benefit public health, but they can also improve economic health and prosperity by making the Birmingham area a more attractive place for people and for businesses to relocate. According to the American Economic Review, air pollution from coal-fired power plants costs the U.S. more in health damage than those plants contribute to the American economy. Coal plants produce the largest “gross external damages” – $53 billion annually- of any of the industries. Comparatively, the Clean Air Act is one of the most successful public health programs in American history and, with a return of more than $30 in benefits for every dollar invested in pollution reductions, it is one of the best investments Americans have made.

Excessively polluting should never be viewed as “something we can do now” to get ahead. Literally taken, if sickening people is ok temporarily, where do we draw the line? EPA Administrator Jackson said it best that, “Americans are no less entitled to a safe, clean environment during difficult economic times than they are in a more prosperous economy.” Because it usually takes time for health issues to surface due to the body’s programmed mechanisms to fight and keep us alive, it makes it challenging to immediately correlate cause and effect. But there’s no denying the negative health effects, such as the inflated amount of kids who require daily breathing treatments that live near big industrial plants. We cannot naively buy time anymore. We cannot accept statements like those from Jeff Sessions recently, proclaiming victims of air pollution are “unidentified and imaginary,” condoning a Washington Post journalist’s article titled, “Show us the Bodies, EPA.”

We must continue to regulate but in a sensible way that considers both the costs and benefits. The President is correct by stating that our economic crisis can’t be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that we’ve counted on for decades. People shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and safety and we shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom.

Yes, the timeline for strengthening ozone standards has not been followed, but not in the way it has been presented. It has been delayed so many times that we are long overdue for more strengthening, not slashing, given what the science shows us to how it affects our very survival.


TOPICS: Asthma, Economics, Politics, Pollution