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Instead of Saving Lives, Obama Chooses Delay

Imagine two tiny figures perched on a politician's shoulders—one scientific, the other political.

The scientist whispers in the politician's ear: "You can save 6,500 lives every year with these health protections!"

The tiny politician counters, "You can save those lives, but who will save you from the powerful industry lobbyists outside your door?"

So with an election approaching, the right thing to do—pursuing environmental policy that will save lives, not placate industry—becomes the thing that isn't done. And the tiny scientist is brushed off. New evidence of that approach came today.

The Environmental Protection Agency just announced that it will grant itself—in violation of a court's order that commanded otherwise—until April 2012 to finish health protections against toxic air pollution from industrial boilers. These health protections will save as many as 6,500 lives every year, but a delay like this will lead to deaths that could have been prevented.

Two years ago, the scientist wasn't a pariah. Science's stock was on the rise after all-time lows during the Bush years, and the Obama administration came into office with promises to restore scientific integrity to its rightful place in policymaking. Early on, Lisa Jackson—head of the Environmental Protection Agency—wrote in a memo to her employees: "science must be the compass guiding our environmental protection decisions." Considering the cro-magnon regard with which science was received in years prior, those words were reassuring.

But not long after we bought in, they sold out. What we're seeing today is that true north on the administration's compass points to politics as usual.

Before the spell broke—or rather, when the 2012 election wasn't hanging over the White House like a storm cloud—the administration made some good moves. A little over a year ago, for example, the EPA proposed what some have referred to as the mother of all air toxics standards, which aims to limit the emissions of cancer-causing, brain-damaging, lung-burning air pollution from industrial boilers. Boilers aren't a household name, but they are ubiquitous in our communities, and that's exactly why cleaning them up is so important.

It should have happened a long time ago. Acting on scientists' advice, Congress made the call way back in 1990 that emissions of mercury, arsenic, benzene, dioxin and other toxic chemicals from boilers must be reduced to protect the public's health, and they issued a deadline of 2000. Industry resisted, foot-dragging ensued, deadlines passed and Earthjustice took the issue to court. The courts affirmed time and again that it is the EPA's duty to issue health standards that protect people from breathing toxic air.

The courts weighed in most recently in February 2011, when a federal judge ordered the EPA to finalize its long-awaited health standards without further delay. The agency did, and we learned that reducing the toxic air pollution released by boilers would save the lives of as many as 6,500 people every year. You read that right. Pollution from boilers kills thousands of people every year.

It was heartening that the administration seemed serious about putting protections in place to prevent further loss of life. So it seemed, but for the advice of that tiny shoulder politician. In mid-May, the EPA delayed the boiler standards indefinitely. Today, they set a final deadline of April 2012, but with previous deadlines already come and gone without a final health standard, it's hard to put much faith in that.

Never mind that as many as 6,500 people will die for every additional year we have to wait. Never mind that thousands of people will suffer heart attacks, asthma attacks and other health problems that keep them from going to work and school. Never mind that the EPA is circumventing a court order with this delay, and more importantly, its credo that public health shall be protected. The administration found itself under industry's thumb with an election fast-approaching but without a willingness to push back.

That's a real tragedy, especially because people's lives are at risk.

We hope the administration will demonstrate that its stated commitment to protecting our health isn't just pretty talk. In addition to bringing back the boiler standards, the EPA must not dither on finalizing updated, science-based limits on ozone pollution. We've been told these standards will come in late July, but they've been delayed before. Like the boiler standards, ozone protections will save lives—12,000 every year, in fact—and prevent many more cases of illness. Those great benefits don't belong on a political pro/con list. They're scientific indicators that the policy must be put in place without delay.

Ultimately, the administration should base its environmental policies on science, regardless of how hard or in which direction the political winds are blowing. That's called leadership, and now would be a good time for the administration to regain it.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.