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The Dog Ate My Clean Air Standards

In 1990, Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency a very important homework assignment: protect the American public from mercury, lead, benzene, dioxins and other invisible toxic air pollutants, because what we can't see can hurt us.

Twenty-one years later, these dangerous pollutants are still pouring forth in large quantities from smokestacks across the country. Some of the nation's biggest polluters—cement kilns, industrial boilers and coal-fired power plants—are going to have to cut down on their toxic pollution as the Clean Air Act requires, have yet to do so.

In many cases, the reason is that the EPA has time and again failed to turn in its homework—critical clean air standards that require industries to install pollution controls that are readily available and affordable. Pressure and opposition from industry has routinely been a roadblock. In this way, polluting industries and their allies in Congress have played the part of the dog, scarfing the standards that would cause dirty industries to clean up their facilities. But even when the EPA has turned in clean air standards to clean up polluters, more often than not they are covered in industry's slobber—watered down and full of loopholes that benefit polluters.

"The Clean Air Act is actually a very clear law," said Earthjustice's Jim Pew in a recent article that's part of the Poisoned Places series, co-reported by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. "One administration after another has just refused to implement it because they didn't want to offend the powerful industry interests that didn't want to have to control their pollution."

And many of the standards that have been turned in "provide far less protection than the Clean Air Act requires," added Pew. "People in many communities are exposed to unacceptable levels of pollutants that can cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health effects."

Unlike most students who fail to turn in their homework, the EPA is required by law to take these steps. When it doesn't, Earthjustice uses the courts to remind the agency of its responsibility under the law. This process led the EPA to issue the first ever emission standards for coal-fired power plants, released last March. A final standard is due one month from today, on December 16, 2011. More than 800,000 citizens submitted comments in support of strong standards, but some entrenched industry interests have also pushed back hard, claiming that the standards are "job-killers."

The credible evidence out there indicates that now is precisely the time that clean air standards should be issued. Not only will they have a tremendous impact on the health of the American public, they will also create thousands of new utility jobs.

Be sure to take a look at the well-researched and highly informative investigative reporting from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. It's a treasure trove of good information about a system that is broken in many ways. Earthjustice will continue our work to improve it and to ensure that the right of all Americans to breathe clean air is protected.

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