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New Smog Standards Will Prevent Respiratory Illness, but Polluters Don't Want to Clean Up Their Mess

Peter Lehner

Posted August 10, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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American homeowners know that companies don’t have the right to dump garbage in our backyards. If we found a pile of solid waste on our lawn, we would demand they haul it away. Even if we learned it would cost the company money to clean it up, we wouldn’t just let them leave garbage in our yard. We would make them get rid of it.

Yet every day, companies are dumping garbage into our lungs in the form of air pollution. Shouldn’t the same principle apply? Shouldn’t polluters be responsible for getting rid of this kind of trash too?

These are the questions involved in the battle over a new standard for smog pollution.

Smog causes respiratory illness, cardiac disease, and the premature death of thousands of Americans every year. Yet the current standard—set by the Bush Administration—was deemed too weak by Bush’s own scientists and by several states that have challenged it in court. The Obama Administration is trying to create a legal standard that will protect Americans from dangerous levels of smog.

But anti-government critics refuse to acknowledge these health benefits. All they see are the costs to polluters.

It’s true that businesses will have to pay to reduce their smog pollution, just as they have to pay to make sure transit fleets don't endanger drivers and their food products don’t sicken people. These are some of the costs of doing business.

It is also true that the costs of reducing pollution are routinely dwarfed by the value. In 2010 alone, Clean Air Act standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits for a cost of $50 billion. That's a value worth more than 9 percent of GDP for a cost of only .4 percent of GDP. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.

The EPA estimates that the smog standards will save as much as $37 billion per year in health benefits at a cost of roughly $20 billion. 

But that isn’t why the agency proposed the new standard. In fact, it is against the law for the agency to consider costs when setting public health standards.

In 2001, Justice Scalia wrote on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court that any consideration of cost to industry or economic impacts when the EPA sets health standards for ozone or other air pollutants would violate the Clean Air Act.

The law demands that the EPA set pollution limits based on public health considerations alone. This is another principle Americans are familiar with. We like to make informed decisions about our families’ welfare. If you were buying a house and the appraiser found high levels of radon contamination, would you want her to say: “It will cost a lot of money to remove the radon, so I won’t tell the buyers about it.”  You would want to know what it takes to keep your family safe.

That is what the EPA tries to do when it sets standards. But polluters and their friends in the Tea Party view this as an undue burden.

They couch their opposition in all kinds of rhetoric. They claim new regulations will hurt the economic recovery, despite the fact that the smog standard won’t kick in for three to four years.

They claim that air pollution rules infringe on their rights, when in fact there is no right to pollute. Back in law school, my constitutional law professor taught me that the right to swing my arm only goes as far as the next person’s nose. Companies have the freedom to do operate, but they don’t have the freedom to punch everyone in the face.

No, despite all the lofty claims, the real reason polluters object to things like strong smog standards is they don’t want to pay to clean up their waste.

But most Americans believe in fair play. That's why a June poll of likely 2012 voters from all parties found that 75 percent support the EPA's effort to set stronger smog standards and 66 percent believe that EPA scientists--not Congress--should establish clean air standards.

These voters know it is time to get the garbage out of our lungs.  

 

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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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