Less mercury pollution is a Good Thing

Less mercury pollution is a Good Thing January 5, 2012

Jess Zimmerman at Grist calls our attention to a photo archive showing “What America looked like before the EPA“:

In 1972, the year-old EPA had photographers traverse the country to document the (often dire) state of the environment. This project, Documerica, was “the visual echo of the mission of the EPA,” according to one photographer. Now, 40 years later, archive specialist Jerry Simmons has unearthed the photos and put them online at the National Archives website and on Flickr. It’s a time capsule of life before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Grist’s David Roberts takes Republicans at their word, accepting that what they say they want to do to the EPA is what they actually want to do to the EPA. “If they win, Republicans plan to permanently cripple EPA”:

Look past GOP opposition to this EPA rule or that EPA rule. They’re going after the whole enchilada. With the REINS Act, in particular, the GOP means to permanently cripple the ability of EPA — indeed, any regulatory agency — to issue science-based rules.

REINS would do so by requiring that every “major rule” (with an impact of $100 million or more, between 50 and 100 a year) be approved by Congress. That means if a rule isn’t voted on in 70 days, it dies. If the House can muster a majority against it, it dies. If a minority in the Senate filibusters it, it dies.

Keep in mind, these are not new laws we’re talking about. These are the mechanisms by which regulatory agencies enforce laws already on the books. REINS would enable a unified minority to do exactly what the GOP was trying to do by refusing to approve a head for the Consumer Protection Agency, namely, nullify a democratically passed law that they don’t like.

That’s Roberts’ summary of a longer piece he wrote for The Washington Monthly. You should read the whole thing, but let me quote a big chunk here:

Conservatives have inveighed against federal regulations since time immemorial, but the antipathy they harbor toward the EPA is unique in its intensity, particularly under the Obama administration. …

The core laws that shape the EPA’s mission — the Clean Air and Water Acts, passed in the early 1970s — are among the most dynamic and aspirational ever to issue from the U.S. Congress. It’s not that the standards in the original bills were all that strict, but that they were designed to evolve. The laws mandate that the EPA regularly revisit its standards and update them based on the latest science.

Take the Clean Air Act, the main target of recent GOP attacks. It not only establishes specific rules for an enumerated class of pollutants, it also instructs the EPA to set standards for “any air pollutant” that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” and to review and update those standards every five years. That makes the law a living, breathing thing. Congress or the president must intervene to prevent stronger and stronger clean air protections. … Scholars David Sousa and Christopher McGrory Klyza call this fitful but persistent advance of the law “green drift.”

What’s happened under Obama is that green drift has become a green sprint; his EPA’s schedule is, comparatively speaking, incredibly aggressive. This isn’t because Obama is a government-loving socialist; it’s because of two factors that played out before he even took office.

First, the Bush administration spent eight years slow-walking scientific review and cranking out rules too weak or ill-formed to withstand judicial scrutiny. … That left an enormous backlog of court-mandated work for the EPA under Obama. …

Second, there was a turning point in 2007: the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide, as long as it can be shown to “endanger public health or welfare,” qualifies as a pollutant within the EPA’s purview.

This “enormous backlog of court-mandated work for the EPA” isn’t about new laws, it’s simply a matter of compliance with existing law — with enforcing the Clean Air and Water acts that have been on the books for nearly 40 years. The “green sprint” Roberts describes is the bare-minimum effort required to keep us from returning to the world of those photos linked above.

But this effort also involves actual policies affecting the actual world around us. That includes, as Roberts earlier reported, the Very Good News from late last month regarding the EPA’s new mercury rules:

This one is a Big Deal. It’s worth lifting our heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to appreciate that history is being made. Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. …

It’s the beginning of the end of one of the last of the old-school, 20th-century air pollution problems. … Long after everyone has forgotten who “won the morning” in the fight over these rules, or what effect they had on Obama’s electoral chances, the rule’s legacy will live on in a healthier, happier American people.

Over on ScienceBlogs, Liz Borkowski breaks down the numbers on the “Costs and benefits of EPA’s new emissions rule for power plants“:

In 2016, the rule is expected to deliver health benefits totaling between $37 billion and $90 billion. These come from avoiding:

  • 4,200 to 11,000 premature deaths,
  • 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis,
  • 4,700 heart attacks,
  • 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits,
  • 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis,
  • 140,000 cases of respiratory symptoms,
  • 540,000 days when people miss work, and
  • 3.2 million days when people must restrict their activities.

Overall, the agency calculates “that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public will see up to $9 in health benefits.”

The point here being, simply, Y-A-Y!

This is good news. In this one area, policy just got better. In this one area, liberty and justice were increased and enhanced. This matters. It has real and lasting consequences. And consequences are consequential.

Paul Krugman spells out what this means with regard to Roberts’ summary above of what is at stake for the EPA in November:

This shows that it matters who holds the White House. You can complain about Obama’s lack of a strong progressive agenda, which I sometimes do, or wonder what good it is to hold the White House when the other side blocks every attempt to do good through legislation. But mercury regulation would not have happened if John McCain were president.

Elections have consequences, and this is one delayed consequence of 2008 that will make a big difference.

Related: Thers at Whiskey Fire on “More Freedom, More Listeria.”

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