by Peter Iwanowicz
The Clean Air Act is one of the most successful public health laws we have. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assessment of the Act finds that in 2010 alone, the reductions in fine particle and ozone pollution from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments prevented more than: 160,000 cases of premature mortality; 130,000 heart attacks; 13 million lost work days; and, 1.7 million asthma attacks.
Under normal implementation and enforcement of the Act, the EPA projects that in 2020, benefits will be even greater, preventing more than 230,000 cases of premature mortality, 200,000 heart attacks, 17 million lost work days, and, 2.4 million asthma attacks. The health benefits are expected to exceed $2 trillion while the costs will be $85 billion.
We are, however, working in anything but “normal” circumstances and EPA’s ability to realize these benefits is under significant risk.
For the past two years, Big Polluters and their allies in Congress have been working to roll back, weaken and block critically important updates to clean air standards that the EPA is required to make under the Act. These efforts included attempts to permanently block EPA rules that would limit standards to limit toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants and protect us from air pollution that blows into other states. At the urging of Big Oil, members of Congress have also tried to strip away EPA’s authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which not only endangers our health today but also future generations by increasing temperatures that significantly contribute to the formation of lethal ozone (smog) pollution. Other attacks on the Clean Air Act have focused on undermining the very core of this public health focused law by attempting to block consideration of health benefits in setting clean air protections
Thus far, these attempts to impede our nation’s healthy air progress have been thwarted by the leadership in the Senate and the effective implementation of this healthy air law by the Obama Administration. Except for the outrageous decision made by the President in September 2011 to reject EPA’s proposed health standard for ozone, the Administration has largely acted to implement the Clean Air Act as required and as a result millions of people will lead healthier lives and tens of thousands will not die prematurely.
While Congress has reached a short-term agreement to avoid the so called “fiscal cliff,” the across the board budget cuts are still looming and could truly weaken the effectiveness of current air quality safeguards as Congress considers ways to reduce spending. Here’s why: According to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) more than $100 million in budget cuts to EPA’s Air program are proposed. Twenty-percent of the cut would be to the funds provided to states and local governments who monitor air pollution levels and administer permits for industrial facilities among other key aspect of the Act. In addition, EPA’s budget for enforcement would also be cut by $64.5 million.
The inevitable result if these cuts are made will be delayed enforcement, fewer inspections of polluting facilities and a serious hit to the public’s right to know about levels of pollution in the air. Big Polluters might enjoy having fewer cops on the beat, but those who get sick and those that might die prematurely because air quality is not improving or being sufficiently monitored deserve better. The Clean Air Act promises healthy air for all to breathe. Fights over tax rates and deficit reduction should not have us reaching for a gas mask as a means of getting cleaner air.
Over the past two years, public support for the Clean Air Act has prevailed over the wishes of Big Polluters. Now more than ever Congress needs to hear from you. There is a way to balance the need for deficit reduction and at the same time, improve lung health.
Peter Iwanowicz is Assistant Vice President of the American Lung Association. Cartoon by John de Rosier.