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Will Our Elected Representatives Sacrifice 28,000 Lives to Cut a Last-Minute Political Deal?

John Walke

Posted December 12, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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Congress enters the week engaged in critical negotiations over an omnibus spending bill and a payroll tax extender package, with Congressional Republicans continuing their furious push to include harmful, unrelated “riders” targeting public health and environmental safeguards.

NRDC president Frances Beinecke has described the sweep of some of these ideological attacks, which have nothing to do with saving taxpayers’ money or improving the economy, but instead are more of the same extreme agenda that has produced over 170 anti-environmental votes in the House alone during the 112th Congress.

Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), laid down the marker for these negotiations in the form of a deeply irresponsible bill [pdf] aimed at everything from fast-tracking the Keystone XL pipeline to killing protections against mercury and other air toxins from incinerators and industrial boilers.

The latest Republican assault on the mercury safeguards tracks a bill, H.R. 2250, [pdf] that has passed the House but gone nowhere in the Senate. The bill significantly delays and weakens clean-up of toxic air pollution from industrial boilers and incinerators. These facilities are the nation’s second largest industrial source of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that harms children’s developing brains.

Last week Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill of disparate proposals, including imposition of a millionaires’ surtax and provisions to extend the payroll tax cut for another year. The bill also included previously-introduced Senate legislation, S.1392, [pdf], that is patterned on H.R. 2250 and also would significantly delay and cripple mercury and toxic air pollution standards for incinerators and industrial boilers.

These harmful House and Senate bills have managed to sustain themselves on the widespread misconception, propagated in the Senators’ own press materials [pdf], that the incinerators-boilers legislation would simply delay toxic air pollution standards for industrial boilers and incinerators by 15 months. (The materials state that the bill “guarantees the 15-months the EPA itself requested to provide the agency with the testing data needed for achievable rules and provides manufacturers with the time needed for the capital planning to comply with these very complex and expensive rules.”)

This is factually incorrect, profoundly so, and misrepresents the actual consequences of the legislation.

Here’s what these irresponsible bills actually do:

  • The bills do not simply delay the standards by 15 months. Both the House and Senate bills mandate at least a 3.5 year delay in making mercury and air toxics safeguards available to the American people. The bills do this first by delaying promulgation of new standards by a minimum of 15 months and next by prohibiting EPA from setting compliance deadlines any earlier than 5 years after the effective date of the standards. Current law requires that standards take effective no later than 3 years after their adoption.
  • Both bills void existing standards for incinerators and boilers. S.1392 further eliminates any deadline to issue new standards, meaning the bill would allow final standards to be issued 5, 10 or even 20 years from now, and then the legislation eliminates any industry compliance deadlines.

Even the minimum delay, of 3.5 years, would mean:

  • Up to 28,350 premature deaths;
  • Over 17,000 heart attacks;
  • Nearly 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits;
  • More than 1.2 million days of missed work; and
  • Over 150,000 cases of asthma attacks.

And for every additional year of delay, thousands more lives would be lost. 

The agency is currently taking comments on these reproposed standards, and expects to finalize them by late spring in 2012. The agency has never said that it needs new legislation to provide more time to finish these standards and EPA opposes the delays and weakening changes in S.1392 and H.R. 2250. For these reasons, the president issued a veto threat [pdf] over H.R. 2250 as it was being brought up for a vote in the House.

Critically, both bills would permanently weaken the Clean Air Act so that standards for these facilities are no longer based on what the best facilities are achieving, but instead on the weakest possible standards under the law. This core feature of both bills gives lie to any claim that these bills do nothing more than delay standards for 15 months. These bills would overturn the Clean Air Act and multiple court decisions and mandate that the agency set standards based on the emissions of the dirtiest sources, rather than the cleanest – meaning even more toxic air pollution from facilities that burn materials such as coal, oil, plastics, scrap tire, and coal ash. 

In fact, the bills mandate that EPA base mercury and air toxics standards on the “least burdensome alternative” [pdf, p.2] to the law’s current protective standards – least burdensome to industry, that is, and not the American people that are burdened by carcinogens, neurotoxins, and deadly soot pollution from these incinerators and industrial boilers.

In sum, this legislation, either free-standing in the House or snuck into an omnibus spending bill or “payroll tax” package, would represent an attack on Americans’ right to clean and healthy air. These standards are decades overdue, and both H.R. 2250 and S.1392 would only lead to many more years of delay – meaning more asthma attacks, more disease, and more premature deaths. 

The President and CEO of the American Boiler Manufacturers Association, in response to EPA’s recent re-proposal, stated “the American Boiler Manufacturers Association urges ‘no action’ on S. 1392 nor any additional action on H. R. 2250. Needless, arbitrary delay in resolution of these rules does not serve the best interests of either those who are being regulated or those who provide goods and services to those regulated. Delay means only additional uncertainty in the market place. Progress is being made through the regular order; we would urge you to let the rulemaking process go forward without Congressional intrusion.”

Torpedoing must-pass legislation with anti-environmental riders is no way to run the country, and deadly legislation aimed at delaying toxic air pollution standards for incinerators and industrial boilers has no place in tax or funding bills.

But these irresponsible and harmful pushes cannot become law in the face of firm opposition and leadership by Senators and the president. The Senate has fended off every attack on the Clean Air Act during the 112th Congress; the president has vowed to veto the harmful House bill gutting the mercury standards for incinerators and boilers; and the Obama administration is on the verge of announcing historic safeguards against mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants that burn coal and oil.

Now when it matters most is the time for this leadership to be renewed; now is not the time to sacrifice the lives and health of so many Americans to dirty politics-as-usual in Washington.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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