Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws. They have picked up the pace recently — just last week they voted to stop the EPA's efforts to limit mercury and other hazardous pollutants from cement plants, boilers and incinerators — and it appears their campaign will continue for the foreseeable future.
Using the economy as cover, and repeating unfounded claims that "regulations kill jobs," they have pushed through an unprecedented rollback of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and our nation's waste-disposal laws, all of which have successfully protected our families for decades. We all remember "too big to fail"; this pseudo jobs plan to protect polluters might well be called "too dirty to fail."
The House has voted on provisions that, if they became law, would give big polluters a pass in complying with the standards that more than half of the power plants across the country already meet. The measures would indefinitely delay sensible upgrades to reduce air pollution from industrial boilers located in highly populated areas. And they would remove vital federal water protections, exposing treasured resources such as the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Los Angeles River to pollution.
How we respond to this assault on our environmental and public health protections will mean the difference between sickness and health — in some cases, life and death — for hundreds of thousands of citizens.
This is not hyperbole. The link between health issues and pollution is irrefutable. Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects brain development in unborn children and young people. Lead has similar effects in our bodies. Soot, composed of particles smaller across than a human hair, is formed when fuels are burned and is a direct cause of premature death. Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds contribute to the ozone alert days when seniors, asthmatics and others with respiratory problems are at serious risk if they do nothing more dangerous than step outside and breathe the air.
"Too dirty to fail" tries to convince Americans that they must choose between their health and the economy, a choice that's been proved wrong for the four decades that the EPA has been in existence. No credible economist links our current economic crisis — or any economic crisis — to tough clean-air and clean-water standards.
A better approach is the president's call for federal agencies to ensure that regulations don't overburden American businesses. The EPA has already put that into effect by repealing or revising several unnecessary rules, while ensuring that essential health protections remain intact.
We can put Americans to work retrofitting outdated, dirty plants with updated pollution control technology. There are about 1,100 coal-fired units at about 500 power plants in this country. About half of these units are more than 40 years old, and about three-quarters of them are more than 30 years old. Of these 1,100 units, 44% do not use pollution controls such as scrubbers or catalysts to limit emissions, and they pour unlimited amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and acid gases into our air. Despite requirements in the bipartisan 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, these facilities have largely refused to control their emissions — creating an uneven playing field for companies who play by the rules and gaming the system at the expense of our health.
If these plants continue to operate without pollution limits, as a legislative wish list from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would allow, there will be more cases of asthma, respiratory illness and premature deaths — with no clear path to new jobs.
By contrast, the nation's first-ever standards for mercury and other air toxic pollutants which the EPA will finalize this fall — and which the Republican leadership aims to block — are estimated to create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term jobs in the utility sector through modernizing power plants. And the savings in health benefits are estimated to be up to $140 billion per year by 2016.
Contrary to industry lobbying, this overhaul can be accomplished without affecting the reliability of our power grid.
Our country has a long tradition of treating environmental and public health protections as nonpartisan matters. It was the case when President Nixon created the EPA and signed into law the historic Clean Air Act, when President Ford signed into law the Safe Drinking Water Act and when President George H.W. Bush oversaw important improvements to the Clean Air Act and enacted the trading program that dramatically reduced acid rain pollution.
Our environment affects red states and blue states alike. It is time for House Republicans to stop politicizing our air and water. Let's end "too dirty to fail."
Lisa P. Jackson is the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.