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Life, Liberty and the Right to Breathe

Nobody gets through a day without breathing. Not executives in the coal-fired power and cement industries, which are polluting our air daily. Not the legion of lobbyists they hire to patrol the halls of Congress in defense of dirty air. And not the members of Congress who, hand-in-hand with these special interests, are marching the Clean Air Act off a cliff.

At the very same time that these women and men draw breath, they are working to derail and delay clean air protections with a vigor that suggests there isn't a set of functioning lungs between them.

To confront this audacity, Earthjustice helped to bring a diverse group of doctors, nurses, faith and tribal leaders, and environmental justice advocates to Washington, D.C. earlier this month for an event dubbed 50 States United for Healthy Air. These 80 Clean Air Ambassadors, who came from all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, met with members of Congress, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to defend our right to breathe. Rev. Dr. Michael Stinson, one of the ambassadors, stated their purpose clearly: "We are people from all 50 states with a passion for one issue—clean air."

As part of an online storytelling project, Earthjustice staff asked the ambassadors to express in a sentence what clean air is to them. Their sentences read like axioms, as they elucidate core realities and challenges of this issue.

Matthew Tejada, Air Alliance Houston
Houston, TX
"Clean air is something everyone should have but not everyone gets."

More than 150 million people in the United States live in areas where high levels of air pollution make breathing a dangerous affair. Nearly one in 10 children has asthma, and the rates are double that for African-American children, according to a report released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the ambassadors, including Dr. Tejada, came to D.C. from environmental justice communities, typified by a high density of industrial operations that place a large and disproportionate burden on the shoulders of low-income and people of color.

Richard Mabion, Building a Sustainable Earth Community
Kansas City, KS
"Clean air is a healthy America."

The Clean Air Act saved 160,000 lives in 2010, and the EPA projects it will save 230,000 lives in 2020. Clean air standards reduce incidences of childhood asthma as well as the number of heart attacks and emergency room visits that happen every year. They also reduce dramatically the number of days when adults have to miss work and children have to miss school because of poor air quality. Access to clean air is essential to living a happy, healthy life.

Carol Oglesby, National Council of Churches
Evansville, IN
"Clean air is endangered."

Polluting industries, their lobbyists, and sympathetic members of Congress have it out for clean air standards. Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has led an effort to block health protections against cement plants' toxic pollution from ever taking effect—protections that will save as many as 2,500 lives every year. And opposition has been and is building to a range of other important protections, including long-overdue standards that will reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants and an updated standard to control dangerous ozone pollution. The challenges to these life-saving protections appear rooted in a belief that industry profits are more important than our health.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set these health standards, but years of industry pressure and unfavorable political administrations have resulted in their delay—all at great cost to our health. Earthjustice litigation and advocacy has effectively moved the process forward, leading to proposed and final health standards from the EPA against toxic air emissions from power plants, cement plants and other major pollution sources. We continue our work to ensure that strong health protections against this pollution are issued without delay.

Dr. Michael McCally, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Santa Fe, NM
"Clean air is essential to health and cheap at the price."

Opponents of clean air protections cite high costs and job loss as a major concern. But there is ample evidence that the benefits of clean air outweigh the costs of getting there by leaps and bounds. For example, the EPA recently estimated that the direct benefits of health standards that have resulted from amendments made to the Clean Air Act will reach nearly $2 trillion in 2020—more than 30 times greater than the cost of implementing those standards. In other words, every dollar spent by polluters to clean up saves the American public $30. And a study from UMASS-Amherst found that cleaning up air pollution from coal-fired power plants could create 290,000 jobs on average in each of the next five years.

Dustina Gill, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate
Sisseton, NM
"Clean air is our responsibility."

We are a nation of rights. That is the very foundation of our democracy. But we are also a nation of responsibilities, because the rights we cherish are not always granted equally nor defended adequately. We have a responsibility to stand up for those rights when we see that they are infringed upon.

These Clean Air Ambassadors made clean air their responsibility. They took the initiative to speak out for our right to breathe, and we are humbled by their efforts. There is much at stake in these times, and we must all do our part to defend those things that allow us to lead happy, healthy lives. We will continue to do our part in the courts, ensuring that the Clean Air Act and other landmark laws are followed. You can do your part by contacting the EPA and demanding that it use the Clean Air Act to protect our health and our lives, which is exactly what it was designed to do.