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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  • Anonymous

    Less mercury pollution a good thing? Not if you’re a Chimeran. Mercury is their oxygen.

  • File under #BothSidesDon’t: This side has an EPA. The Republicans will not.

  • Anonymous

    Talking to some of my conservative friends, they are fine with the Clean Air and Water Acts generally, they just don’t like CO2 being on that list because it’s part of the Global Warming Conspiracy. If the only way to get rid of that rule is to destroy the EPA, well, too bad.

  • So it is fair to say at this point that the Republican Party actually desires to murder children by giving them cancer? I mean, that’s what I believe about them, but I’d like someone more objective than me to say whether it’s a fair assessment or not.

  • The only error in your statement is that you said “children” instead of “everyone, and their little dog Toto too”

  • Daughter

    Speaking of pollution, and in light of the earlier Dr. Suess thread, did you know that a CGI movie version of The Lorax will soon be released?

  • Emcee, cubed

    I’ve been repressing this knowledge, because all the information I have on it shows it to be an abomination of the highest order. As just one example, the character of the boy who Onceler tells his story to, has a love interest in the movie. This is an unnamed character who appears in 7 pages of a 61 page book, and now he has a LOVE INTEREST?? Note to movie-makers: STOP MESSING WITH MY CHILDHOOD!

    Okay, I’m done now…

  • rizzo

    Why I remember in the 50’s we ate mercury for breakfast, showered in the acid rain, breathed pure CO and pulled ourselves by our lead bootstraps!  The kids today are just lazy wimps, with their clean water and breathable air!

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Part of their ongoing effort to destroy the work of that notorious hippie, Richard Nixon.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Talking to some of my conservative friends, they are fine with the Clean
    Air and Water Acts generally, they just don’t like CO2 being on that
    list because it’s part of the Global Warming Conspiracy. If the only way
    to get rid of that rule is to destroy the EPA, well, too bad.

    I really wish the Republicans would kindly STOP making David Icke’s belief that the world is actually ruled by evil lizard-people from the fourth dimension sound rational.  Because the only “Global Warming Conspiracy” I see is a bunch of oligarchs who seem to be trying to pump as much carbon as possible back into the atmosphere, and you’d think lizards would enjoy the Carboniferous Era…

  • Anonymous

    That’s downtown Birmingham Alabama. I worked in the building on the left – South Central Bell. And I developed terrible allergies in the early 1970’s breathing that stuff. Fortunately, I did not have to live in the downtown area.

  • Daughter

    I’ve never been of the mindset that changes to a story between the book and the film adaptation ruins it. I mean, an adaptation is just what its name suggests. The filmmaker has to make some changes to shorten or lengthen the story, to convey things visually that were once conveyed in words, to make it accessible to the audience and so on.

    So I don’t judge a film adaptation by the changes, just by whether or not the film itself is good. I think the live action films of Cat in the Hat and the Grinch were awful, but not because of the changes. (I thought one change in Cat was pretty clever: having a babysitter who slept while all the action was going on, which still left the kids unsupervised while solving the problem of audiences today looking askance at a mother leaving her two young kids at home alone in a way that 1950s readers wouldn’t have).

    No, the films of Cat in the Hat and the Grinch were awful because they were simply unfunny.

    How good The Lorax will be remains to be seen. (Regardless, the rightwing will howl about the political correctness of its pro-environmental message, just as they did about the “anti-Capitalist” message of The Muppets). But the change you  mentioned makes sense: it gives the young boy a reason for going in search of the Once-ler: his girl crush wants to see a real tree.

  • Anonymous

    But . . . but . . . Mercury was created by GOD.  And, if I understand the current batch of Republicans correctly, they all want each and everyone of us to have as much God in our lives as possible.  So, what’s the problem??

    Uh huh . . . .

  • Emcee, cubed

    Meh. I never thought the kid needed any reason other than “creepy house, trying to be brave, rite of passage” thing. I also think it dilutes the message, having him specifically going to find out about the trees for the girl. It gives him an ulterior motive. “Hey, if I save the trees, this girl will like me.” In the story, he’s just going to brave the Once-ler and finds out the story, and is moved by it. He is saving the world because the world is worth saving, not so he can get the girl.

    But you are right, I shouldn’t judge a movie adaptation before I see it. But it is kind of like the remake of Psycho. The original was pretty darn perfect. What exactly do you think you can do better in the remake? (The answer to this is, of course, nothing. The remake was so swiftly forgotten, many don’t even remember it happened. As it should be.)

  • I was waiting for someone to bring up Nixon, the CREATOR of the EPA. Not to mention that notorious tree- & bunny-hugger, Goldwater. Barry once asked, “how can a conservative not be a conservationist?”

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    In TOTALLY UNRELATED news today, I heard on the radio that the Colorado GOP is trying to lift the CRUSHING BURDEN of regulation from our poor, suffering industries by making it even harder for regulatory industries to fine them.

  • Anonymous

    I’m grateful for those pictures.  At times, it feels like the environment has been on a constant downslide for centuries.  It’s nice to know that sometimes things get better.

  • Jared Bascomb

    I’m old enough to remember that in the pre-EPA days, you could barely see LA’s City Hall from the 101 freeway (less than a mile away). Now, more often than not, you can see the Hollywood sign from the 105/110 interchange – a distance of about 20 miles.

    Sure, there are still bad smog days in LA due to the topography – there’s a reason that the Native Americans and early Spanish explorers called the basin “The Valley of Smoke” – but it’s gotten a *lot* better since 1970.

    So it really bugs me when people want to roll back the Clean Air Act because LA’s air is so much cleaner than it was pre-1970, ignoring the fact that if we loosen the anti-pollution regulations air quality will return to pre-EPA levels.

    If the air was a physical structure, what the Clean Air Act does would be called ongoing preventive maintenance.  

  • P J Evans

     On a halfway decent day, from a downtown high-rise, you can see the Imperial walkers down at the harbor. On a good day, you can see Catalina. (I haven’t had smog-burned eyes in more than thirty years. That’s how much improvement there’s been.)
    I’m grateful for the EPA, because without it, a lot of cities would be dead zones.

  • RickRS

    I’m glad those pictures are showing up again.  I’m 56 so I was starting my senior year of high school in 1972.  I remember almost daily reports of smog in major cities so heavy that it would trigger fatal respiratory attacks in the elderly and in the sick.  I remember rivers in the Northeast so polluted they would catch fire and burn for days.  I remember Love Canal and other neighborhoods that were so toxic from pollution they were closed as unfit for humans.  

    Nixon created the EPA because it was necessary, industry would not police itself.  And when people my age and older talk about how EPA and the Clean Air Act are such a burden my blood boils at their stupidity.  Given the change it would be a  certain slide for industry right back to those golden days of bad air, polluted water, and toxic soil.

  • How good The Lorax will be remains to be seen.

    He’s voiced by Danny Devito.  How reverent an adaptation could it be?

  • Daughter

    An adaptation of Dr. Suess, who epitomized irreverance, should be reverent?

    (Actually, I think casting Danny DeVito as the Lorax is inspired)

  • Alicia

    It reminds me of Ron Paul’s, “We didn’t need the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s because segregation is so much less prevalent in 2011… thanks to the CRA” argument. It’s kind of a neat trick, using the success of progressive legislation to prove that we didn’t need it in the first place. I wonder if they apply the same backward troll logic to other things. (“See, you didn’t need that haircut after all; your hair just went away after that trip to the barber shop!”)

  • Anonymous

    Science nitpick here, but if I remember correctly, the Carboniferous Era was named for the extraordinary amount of carbon in the ground. (Plants having recently evolved fibrous tissue, and bacteria not yet caught up enough to digest it.)

  • fraser

    Yet amazingly when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Republican response was not to save money by cutting the military budget.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think that’s want they really want.  Their opinion is more along the lines of “Green energy is a crock, global warming either isn’t real or isn’t something we control, pollution doesn’t hurt us much, and regulation ALWAYS destroys jobs”.  If you buy into those fantasies, then you don’t really want children killed.  You just think that the ‘pollution = unhealthy people’ idea is a liberal conspiracy and that the children will be fine anyway.

  • Anonymous

    I agree.  I refuse to go watch Hollywood poop on my favorite children’s stories.

  • Anonymous

    *Sigh*  Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are too liberal for the modern republican party.  I’m going to go throw up all over everything now.

  • Anonymous

    But… but… Mercury is a GOD!  A Roman god!  A PAGAN god!  *queue the scary music*

    Sorry.  I’ll show myself out.

  • Gosh, the only downside to this I can see is a short term profit loss for the companies actively engaged in making people sick & polluting the environment– why would anyone who wasn’t a foolish & wicked shill for those poisoners oppose it?  Oh, they are foolish wicked shills?  Oh.  Sad emoticon.

  • rm

    For me, the test of a Lorax movie will be the character of the Onceler. I think that he is a tragic figure — he truly loves the trees, and is blind to the consequences of his own actions, and lives in regret (hence his name). The Lorax is the very model of a bad rhetorician — all he does is scold the Onceler, and never uses any kind of effective rhetorical appeal to form common ground and get past the Onceler’s emotional defenses. If he could get the Onceler to listen, he could show him the logical case for sustainable use, but instead he casts the Onceler as a pure villain. The Lorax is exhibit A of How Not To Do Environmentalism.

    I am ready to see the Onceler cast as a pure villain in the movie, because that allows the audience to feel good about themselves (unlike those satanic tree-killers, we care about the environment). However, I hope they do something smarter than that.

  • Daughter

    I think they plan to portray the Onceler as you suggest. From the trailer, the young Onceler is a handsome man whose seems more dreamy than greedy.

  • Chickenbrutus

    What does reverence have to do with quality?

  • Mary Kaye

    I found the trailer really unappealing:  it didn’t seem to be able to settle on a tone, and made the movie look like an emotionally incoherent bag of jokes.  But of course that’s the trailer, and who knows about the movie yet.

    I really like rm’s comment that the Lorax is not meant to be a role model.  That bothered me as a kid but I couldn’t articulate why.

    Why doesn’t someone film “I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew”  instead?  It’d animate really well (live action maybe not so much).

  • WingedBeast

    “So it is fair to say at this point that the Republican Party actually desires to murder children by giving them cancer? I mean, that’s what I believe about them, but I’d like someone more objective than me to say whether it’s a fair assessment or not.”

    No, they aren’t deliberately killing children with cancer. They’re simply waving away those deaths as not the responsibility of big business despite evidence that industry being allowed to pollute the way they want will, indeed, cause those deaths.

    It’s a little like saying that accidental manslaughter laws, speed limit laws, and any safety laws regarding driving around schools are an expensive and oppressive restriction on drivers and denying that this will have any impact on injuries or deaths to children.

    I mean, technically, these children are dieing of terrible injuries, but who’s to say that those injuries are solely because of the big mac trucks flattening them and not because of other risky behaviors?

  • Flying sardines

    Actually its a planet – the closest one to our Sun with the largest range in temperatures.