Smog is getting its moment in the Congressional spotlight, and the politics are dirty.
In a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing on Tuesday morning, Republicans called upon longtime utility and fossil fuel advocates — including Harry C. Alford, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) — to push back on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed tightening of ground-level ozone levels from to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, from the current 75 parts per billion.
Alford is no stranger to Congress. In the past, he has testified that the EPA’s efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions for power plants would cause electricity prices to skyrocket. As far back as 1998 he testified that the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would be detrimental to minority-owned small businesses. Since 1998, the NBCC has received $800,000 from ExxonMobil. It has also been funded by the tobacco industry.
But Alford’s record of actively opposing environmental policies has struck a nerve with other black leaders in America, who are condemning his relationship with polluting industries.
Dr. Michael Dorsey, the Interim Director for the Energy and Environment Program at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, sees Alford’s tactics as being far more than simply misleading — he sees them as actually being very dangerous to African American communities.
“This testimony harms African Americans,” Dorsey, who has a PhD in environmental policy from the University of Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “Alfred’s false claims about energy are a triple threat — they harm African Americans in their wallets, they harm them in their lungs, and they threaten the environments they live in. He doesn’t even represent black business, it’s criminal.”
Automobiles, power plants, factories, and refineries all produce ozone-forming pollutants, which make up smog. Elevated ozone levels put people are at risk for premature death, aggravated asthma, and difficulty breathing, according to the American Lung Association.
Alford’s remarks Tuesday parroted his past statements. He said that the proposed strengthening of ozone regulations would “shut off huge parts of country to job growth” and would lead to “loss of good health.”
In February, Alford penned an op-ed in the Hill arguing that the EPA’s proposal will shut down coal-fired power plants, which will be harmful to African Americans and African American small business owners in need of “dependable energy and predictable utility bills.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is directly at odds with Alford’s statements. In 2012, the NAACP released a report called “Coal Blooded” stating that of the six million Americans living near coal plants, 39 percent are people of color. NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said that “coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color.”
Dorsey argues that what Alford is doing condemns these minority communities to “remain underneath” dirty energy and prevents them from getting the many benefits of renewable energy. Because of this, the community Alford purports to represent is actually being dramatically misrepresented by arguments “not based on any science and not based on him being a serious advocate.”
“He’s just mouthing off talking points from Edison Electric,” said Dorsey. “It’s disturbing that he would subject himself to being so manipulated.”
Dorsey’s distress extends to Congress as well.
“Not enough Democrats or Republicans want to get together and have serious conversations about serious issues,” he said. “Throwing snowballs and playing games — when we play games with these issues people lose their lives.”
A highly partisan issue, ground-level ozone regulations have done a lot to improve air quality, and lawmakers like Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, think they can and should be taken further.
“As someone who worked in the public health field before I came to Congress, I am very sensitive to the effect that poor air quality can have on all Americans, especially the young and the poor,” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “Some of my colleagues repeatedly argue that any EPA regulation will kill jobs, decimate the industrial base, and cause major harm to our economy. This is not a new line of attack.”
Johnson said that these accusations have been made for decades about every major new environmental and consumer protection regulation, “from catalytic converters to scrubbers to seatbelts. We all know that none of those predictions are true.” She said it is actually quite the opposite: “There is much more evidence that jobs are created and the economy expands following the passage of major reforms.”
The overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the EPA should tighten ozone restrictions. In June 2014, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) — made up of scientists, physicians, researchers and air pollution experts — unanimously recommended that the agency lower the limit of ozone pollution from its current standard.
“If I’m making a diagnosis, it’s not contingent on cost of treatment,” said Dr. Mary B. Rice, from Harvard Medical School, during the hearing. “Similarly with respect to ozone pollution, the medical and scientific community has made a clear and indisputable diagnosis that ozone is harmful to human health.”
As of July, 123 million people — 40 percent of the U.S. population — lived in areas that don’t meet the current ozone standards, primarily in urban and industrial settings. Ozone concentrations typically reach unhealthful levels when the weather is hot and sunny with little or no wind, according to the EPA. With a final EPA’s updated National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone due by October 1 by court order, March 17 is the last day for public comments. There have already been more than 51,000 submissions.