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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.3.11

Let EPA Do Its Job

The political campaign against science

By Dan Galpern

To waste, to destroy, our natural resources Ä will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them. ã President Theodore Roosevelt, seventh message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1907

Propelled by funds doled out by billionaire owners of fossil fuel companies, Republicans in Congress ã joined by some coal-state Democrats ã have launched a political crusade against science in order to roll back environmental protections. In the process they have abandoned the American ideals that led Eisenhower to protect the Arctic, Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and George Schultz to preserve Californias climate protection law. Public health professionals and virtually every environmental organization are arrayed against them. In the balance resides our posterity.

The EPA is among their prime targets. For example, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan ã the new Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee ã advocates blocking EPAs ability to restrict greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, thus functionally overturning the Supreme Courts key climate decision of 2007.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) seeks to strip EPAs funding to administer its GHG inventory program, and so keep the public in the dark as to major emitters of such pollution. Rep. John Carter (R-TX) would bar use of federal funds to enforce emissions limits on toxic air emissions from cement plants. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) urges a ban on funding for any EPA enforcement efforts relating to stationary source GHG pollution.

West Virginias Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, suggests giving power plants a two-year pass before EPA could restrict their climate pollution. Rep. David McKinley, a Republican also from West Virginia, would bar EPA from listing coal ash as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) seeks to stop EPA from reviewing water pollution threats at proposed coal-mining projects. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) is pressing a measure to stop EPA from issuing final standards for air pollution from industrial boilers.

EPA scientists have recommended a series of limitations on emissions and discharges of pollutants that induce cancer, cause birth defects and disrupt the planets climate system. These recommendations are characterized by measured care in both their examination of the potential harm that unabated pollution may impose on human health and in their analysis of how such pollution might be reasonably controlled. Under the Bush Administration such recommendations were frequently buried by political managers, but current Administrator Lisa Jackson is committed to restoring integrity and reason to the EPA ® even as she grants industry every opportunity to participate in rule-making processes. This renewed commitment to science, reason and public health, in conjunction with judicial declarations that the law of environmental protection may not be ignored, has put EPA back to work on rules that implement the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other key protections.

That work is especially urgent with respect to coal-fired power facilities. These account for half the energy generated in the U.S. and at least 80 percent of the electricity sectors carbon dioxide pollution. (On an equivalent energy basis, burning coal yields twice the CO2 pollution as natural gas.) CO2 emissions, in turn, are the principal driver of global warming, so that continued use of coal constitutes our nations principal physical contribution to disruption of the global climate system and its associated risks ã including hyper storms, wide crop failure and ecosystem collapse.

In addition, coal burning accounts for most of the power sectors emissions of fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury pollution. This stew of pollutants is implicated in reduced worker productivity, respiratory and cardiovascular illness, lung cancer, birth defects and sudden infant death. Indeed, virtually every step in the life cycle of coal ã including its mining, processing, transport, combustion, and disposal of associated wastes ã implicates public health. Coal sludge and slurry impoundments, and coal ash landfills and ponds, for example, routinely leach contaminants to groundwater ã including ammonia, arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chlorides, cyanide, lead, selenium and other salts and metals.

Last month, in a study published by the New York Academy of Sciences, analysts at the Harvard Medical School attempted to account for the full costs of the various waste streams derived from the extraction, processing, combustion and disposal of coal. Those monetized costs totaled, on an annual basis, up to a half trillion dollars a year in the U.S. alone. If reflected in its selling price, coal readily would be recognized as uneconomic as compared with efficiency initiatives and renewable energy sources. Instead, about two-thirds of coals actual costs are external to its price, so that the major share is borne by the public in the guise of damaged health, and disrupted human and natural systems.

On the other hand, studies have demonstrated that prior EPA rules that aimed to protect public health and the environment yielded significantly greater benefits than costs. EPAs newly promulgated, pending, and proposed rules likely will have the same net beneficial monetized impact.

These include, for example, rules to require major sources of GHG pollution to adopt the "best available control technology” when they are newly constructed or else when they undertake major modifications of their facility that significantly increase their emissions. They include, as well, a commitment to propose requirements on coal and oil-fired power plants to employ the "maximum achievable control technology” so as to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, dioxins and other hazardous air pollutants.

Recent polls demonstrate that strong majorities of the public want the EPA to do its job and strictly limit pollution so as to protect public health. This is true even in districts whose elected representatives are leading the charge against the EPA. Participants in the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (pielc.org) that starts March 3 at the UO will consider whether these assaults on the EPA will turn back decades of progress, or whether they will instead boomerang and actually galvanize the publics determination to ensure a clean and green future.

Dan Galpern is a Eugene-based attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. He will moderate a panel Friday at PIELC titled "EPAs Pending Rules: New Tools to Phase-Out Coal and Slash Mobile Source Climate Pollution.”