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Dirty Politics, Foul Air | The Nation

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Dirty Politics, Foul Air

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At Pittsburgh's Jefferson Elementary School, which overlooks the dark gray plumes from two electric power plants, there are so many children with asthma the school nurse alphabetizes the inhalers. On warm, humid days, heavy air traps the ozone and other toxic chemicals produced by the region's eleven coal-burning power plants. In the adjacent county, nearly all 40,000 residents face a pollution-related cancer risk greater than 100 times the goal set by federal clean-air policy. "On the bad pollution days we just don't go outside and play," says Lisa Graves-Marcucci, whose two sons, both asthmatics, attended Jefferson Elementary.

About the Author

Rebecca Clarren
Rebecca Clarren is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is a 2009 Alicia Patterson Fellow.

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While farmworkers are sickened by pesticides, industry writes the rules.

In 1970 Congress created the Clean Air Act to regulate air pollution, with the intention of cleaning up the skies by 1975. Obviously that didn't happen. As science has revealed new types of industrial pollution, the law has been periodically amended to expand cleanup goals and extend timelines. Things are improving: Between 1970 and 2003, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants decreased 51 percent. But there's still a long way to go. Today, due in large part to lax enforcement, 224 counties and Washington, DC, don't meet federal health standards, according to documents released in December by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's 95 million people who breathe toxic air.

Yet instead of updating and strengthening the act, the Bush Administration is working to weaken it, with the absurdly titled "Clear Skies Initiative," which sells out public health in order to help the electric utility industry save money.

Electric power plants, the country's single largest source of air pollution, spew soot--tiny particles of toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides--causing 554,000 asthma attacks and 38,200 heart attacks annually, according to Abt Associates, a consulting firm that does work for the EPA. Fairly small increases in ozone levels cause several thousand people to die prematurely every year from heart attacks and respiratory ailments such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and complications from asthma, as a 2004 Journal of the American Medical Association study found. And long-term exposure to sulfate air pollution and other particles emitted by power plants may increase the risk of lung cancer, heart attacks and heart arrhythmia, say numerous studies in prestigious American medical journals.

The vast majority of these deaths could be avoided if the EPA exercised its full authority, demanding the best available emission controls. Under this Administration, that's not going to happen.

Current law requires that power plants reduce mercury, sulfur and nitrogen no later than 2010. Bush's Clear Skies Initiative sets new emission targets for pollutants, allowing five times more mercury emissions, one and a half times more sulfur dioxide emissions and hundreds of thousands more tons of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides than allowed under current law. It also creates a loophole that would allow an extra decade for the more than 400 grandfathered power plants built before the 1977 Clean Air Act to be retrofitted with pollution controls. The Administration spins this legislation as the most historic cleanup in history; the truth is that if it simply enforced the current Clean Air Act, it would cut as many as five times more emissions up to a decade sooner.

The initiative has stalled in Congress for the past two years, but its prospects look brighter now. In his State of the Union address Bush called on Congress to pass the legislation, and bill sponsor James Inhofe, chair of the powerful Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is pushing a bill through committee. Critics say the motivation for lax emission caps and tardy timelines is as simple as it is sordid: In the past two elections the electric utility industry gave Bush nearly $1.4 million. In 2000 the industry spent more than $78 million on lobbying. In return, they've been handed Clear Skies, lauded by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group, as a "rational approach to regulation." Ultimately the legislation would save power companies $3.5 billion more than the EPA's original plan for meeting the Clean Air Act's public health standards.

The costs to public health would be far more substantial. The extended cleanup timelines would result in 2 million additional asthma attacks and 100,000 more premature deaths between now and 2020, according to an analysis using the EPA's own methods and assumptions. The costs to the public from loss of workdays, hospitalizations, emergency room visits and loss of life would total $34 billion. "The Administration's proposal is outrageous, inflicting an extraordinary, avoidable impact on public health," says Bob Musil, executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility. If it becomes law, he says, "thousands more individuals across America will die prematurely or suffer from cardiovascular or respiratory disease or crippling asthma attacks while they wait for cleaner air."

For Graves-Marcucci, such a craven capitulation to the power industry is a pitiful tradeoff for her young sons' futures. "It's inexcusable. We don't need new laws. What we need is enforcement of the laws already on the books: laws designed to protect human health today, not decades from now," she says. "Bush wants my family to breathe that air for another fifteen years. That's their entire childhood breathing bad air."

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