Last week the U.S. Senate held hearings on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, which mandate nationwide reductions of dangerous emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic and acid gases. The rule has received support from the health care community, many members of the utility industry and thousands of citizens who testified or wrote letters to their members of Congress in support of the rule’s overwhelming benefits.
Thanks to the EPA, the air we breathe will be cleaner and thousands of lives will be saved. These clean air standards are over a decade in the making and build on the legacy of the Clean Air Act, which was signed into law 40 years ago.
Despite the significant improvements in air quality over recent decades, the American Lung Association says more than 175 million people — nearly six of 10 Americans — live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. By 2015, the EPA rule will have prevented an estimated 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, 12,200 hospital visits, 850,000 days of missed work and 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis.
In addition to reducing pollution that leads to heart, respiratory and lung problems, the EPA rule will drastically limit the amount of dangerous mercury released into the air and water. Mercury poses a serious threat to human life — especially to young children and developing fetuses. At least one in 12 and as many as one in six women of childbearing age have levels of mercury high enough to affect an unborn child, impairing cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills and spatial perception. Mercury has been linked to brain damage and neurological problems, including learning disabilities and autism.
Pittsburgh has a proud legacy of clean air and water initiatives. From David Lawrence to Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rachel Carson, the environmental movement is as much a part of our history as the heavy industry that once dominated our landscape.
David Lawrence transformed Pittsburgh through the Smoke Control Ordinance and Renaissance I, creating the first air quality requirements in the country. Joined by Richard K. Mellon and numerous corporate and civic leaders, Lawrence understood that clean air was essential if Pittsburgh was to survive. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Today, the Heinz Endowments is leading a coalition of more than 60 partners in the Breathe Project. From small nonprofits to Fortune 500 corporations, these partners are working to clean the air in the region. They recognize that clean air is at the heart of our region’s economic success, health and long-term vitality.
City council has been working to address this issue on the local level. Last July, I sponsored and city council passed the Pittsburgh Clean Air Act. It requires that diesel vehicles working on publicly subsidized construction projects be retrofited with the best available emissions-control technology. We also teamed with the Heinz Endowments to create a fund to help small business owners pay for such retrofits.
In 2009, I sponsored and city council passed the Clean Water Act. It requires projects that receive public subsidies to better manage stormwater runoff. Pittsburgh’s water infrastructure is outdated and cannot handle the wastewater our community produces. We cannot expect to compete in a 21st-century global economy with 19th-century infrastructure.
People and businesses can choose to locate anywhere. Pittsburgh’s new economy must not be bound by the historical conditions that built our industrial legacy. It can be built only on our legacy of environmental activism. Clean air and clean water are the keystone of our economic future.
Photo: Pittsburgh, Yanzpitt