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Republican Budget Launches Sneak Attacks on Clean Air Protections

John Walke

Posted February 16, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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The House of Representatives is voting this week on a wildly irresponsible Republican budget, pockmarked with scores of equally reckless amendments – special interest legislative earmarks – attacking health, safety and environmental protections.

These dirty air amendments are not being debated through regular order, by the Congressional committees with jurisdiction over the Clean Air Act. Instead the amendments have been launched in the dark of night, in a maelstrom of furious attacks, through an accelerated process that is designed to prevent meaningful public awareness, considered debate, and careful weighing of pros and cons.

Here are the key amendments targeting the Clean Air Act's health safeguards against air pollution like smog, soot, mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic air pollution:

Blocking EPA Standards to Cut Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollution From Cement Plants: Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) has introduced an amendment (#165, page H785) that irresponsibly blocks implementation and enforcement of an EPA rule already on the books to cut mercury and other toxic air pollution from cement plants. The amendment interferes with health protections that EPA estimates will prevent up to 1,500 heart attacks, 17,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 2,500 premature deaths every year.

Blocking EPA Standards to Cut Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollution From Industrial Boilers: Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID) has introduced an amendment (#201, page H787) that irresponsibly blocks adoption, implementation and enforcement of long-overdue EPA standards to cut mercury and other toxic air pollution from industrial boilers. EPA is set to issue these toxic air standards this month, following a 2007 court ruling that already long overdue Bush administration standards violated the Clean Air Act. This amendment interferes with health protections that EPA estimates could prevent up to 3,000 heart attacks, 33,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 5,000 premature deaths every year.

Blocking EPA Standards to Set Health-Protective Limits on Harmful Particle Pollution: Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) has introduced an amendment (#563, page H934) that irresponsibly blocks EPA’s legal obligation and scientific process to adopt health standards defining how much coarse particle pollution is unhealthy for Americans to breathe. The amendment would force EPA to stick with outdated, unhealthy standards and means Americans would be forced to breathe air that EPA scientists and outside doctors and scientists have determined to be unhealthy.

For well over 30 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, EPA has regulated particle pollution based upon the size and harmfulness of those particles, corresponding to the effects on our hearts and lungs, e.g., the ability of the particles to penetrate deep into our lungs and disrupt our breathing functions.

Some industry lobbyists have been waging a cynical campaign to mislead farmers about what EPA is and is not doing, accusing EPA of regulating “farm dust” for the first time. These lobbyists fail to disclose that forms of coarse particle pollution have been controlled under the Clean Air Act for nearly 40 years without interfering with farming or other economic activities.

EPA never has targeted and is not now targeting particular types or sources of particles, based on the origins of those emissions. There is no "farm dust" standard, nor is there a coarse particle pollution standard targeting farms.

EPA has set and will continue to set health-based standards for fine particles and coarse particles based upon what science says those particles do to harm our bodies. Fine and coarse particles come from power plants and diesel exhaust and oil refineries and pesticide applications and engines of all sorts. Our bodies are harmed equally by the size of these particles and their ability to penetrate our lungs and hearts without regard to where the harmful particles originated.

The Noem amendment represents raw politics at its worst. It must resort to denying EPA scientists their salaries in order to prevent EPA from following the science and the law to protect the air that all Americans breathe.

Exempting Offshore Oil Drilling in the Arctic Ocean From Clean Air Protections: Mr. Don Young (R-AK) has introduced an amendment (#127, H783) that ludicrously removes air pollution caused by drilling offshore of states along the Arctic Ocean (read Alaska) from Clean Air Act control requirements. With surgical precision, the amendment scalpels the word “Arctic” from the Clean Air Act, while leaving clean air protections in place along all other U.S. coastal waters. For the first time to my knowledge, this amendment would create a geographic air pollution dead zone – American waters and coastal communities where the protections afforded by the federal Clean Air Act just don’t apply. Mr. Young’s amendment aims to overrule a court decision that found Shell Oil had inadequate Clean Air Act permits for its offshore drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean. In a second amendment (#533, pages H930-931) reflecting remarkably direct retaliation, Mr. Young actually strips the court that issued that ruling from any future jurisdiction to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act by offshore drilling activities in the Arctic Ocean.

These two amendments' irresponsible solution to Clean Air Act noncompliance and air pollution problems is ruthlessly simple: dictate that the Clean Air Act simply won’t apply to Shell and other oil drillers, nor to air pollution in the Arctic Ocean.

Interfering With Long-Overdue Standards to Cut Mercury and Other Toxic Air Pollution From Power Plants and Industrial Boilers: Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) also has introduced an amendment (#407, page H925) seeking to delay forthcoming EPA standards to cut mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants and industrial boilers. The amendment wastes time and money with a directive to the National Academy of Sciences to study toxic air pollution like arsenic, lead, heavy metals and acid gases that already are well-known hazards. Power plants and industrial boilers will have avoided required controls on their toxic air pollution for nearly 20 years, and this amendment irresponsibly seeks to extend that delay.

Over the past two decades, EPA has issued over 100 air toxic standards for non-mercury hazardous air pollutants from industrial sectors other than power plants and industrial boilers, without economic disruption and without any question that these standards protect human health and save lives.

There are no differences in arsenic and lead and heavy metal pollution from oil refineries, incinerators and chemical plants that have been regulated, versus those same toxic emissions from power plants and industrial boilers that have managed to evade cleanup standards for nearly 20 years. Actually there is one important difference: the unregulated power plant and industrial boiler sectors emit vastly more toxic air pollution than industrial sectors that have been controlled by standards for many years.

In 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress already required EPA to perform a study of hazardous air pollution from power plants. EPA completed that study and determined power plant air toxic pollution is dangerous and should be reduced using the law's protective tools designed to cut toxins.

In less than one month, EPA will update the many obvious reasons why we need to cut toxic air pollution when the agency proposes air toxic standards for power plants. There is no need for the cynical delaying tactics at the heart of this amendment – only the wish to subvert an EPA rulemaking that finally will adopt air toxic standards by the end of this year.

The National Academy of Sciences is not a body equipped to recommend or establish regulatory standards for air pollution, as this rider proposes in an unprecedented interference with EPA’s mandated role to carry out and enforce the Clean Air Act. This rider represents a thinly disguised power grab away from the current administration to a body that industry hopes it can influence through political lobbying and representatives with ties to industry.

The cynically and carefully designed delays in this amendment – over two years for completion of the NAS study (coincidentally corresponding to the remainder of the current administration's term), during which time EPA is “discouraged” from adopting protective safeguards – occurs against a historic backdrop of endless delay and broken laws: unlike most industries in America, power plants and industrial boilers have escaped legal standards to reduce toxic air pollution. The Bush administration adopted blatantly illegal standards for industrial boilers and power plants that were tossed out in court, delaying even further the day when toxic air pollution from these sources would be cut. Mr. Hall's amendment piles on even more delay to that nearly two-decade period of delay.

EPA is under court order to propose and finalize long overdue air toxic standards for power plants this year. This amendment clearly targets the governing court-ordered schedule and the need for protective standards now. EPA is also finalizing air toxic standards for boilers next week, so the rider pointlessly “discourages” EPA from adopting standards that also are long overdue and under court order for near-term issuance.

At the end of the day, this amendment and the other dirty air attacks catalogued here represent special interest legislative earmarks that could not become law were they to be transparent to the American people, evaluated on their merits, and debated through regular procedures. 

Dirty air doesn't play well with Americans. By resorting to these health attacks through underhanded budget ploys, the attackers unintentionally reveal their own awareness that in order to weaken the Clean Air Act they have to play dirty.

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