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Six Environmental Imperatives for Obama in 2012

President Obama won the White House on a platform of hope and change – promising an end to dirty corporate influence over our political system and a beginning to an era in which our energy choices lead us to a clean, sustainable future, or at least don’t kill us or make us sick.

So far, the president’s performance has been mixed – with some deliveries on the promise and some disappointments. His last year, whether in office or in his first term, will be crucial in righting his spotty record and making good on his campaign promises to the American people.

Leading up to his fourth year in office, and making sure the new year got off to a good start with supporters, he handed the country a solid. His EPA, led by Administrator Lisa Jackson, finalized a strong rule to protect Americans from mercury poisoning and toxic air pollution from power plants.

Power plants are unrivaled sources of toxic air pollution, releasing thousands of tons of dangerous, hazardous air pollutants such as mercury, lead and dioxins into our air and communities. This pollution leads to lung and heart disease, cancer, learning disorders and even death. Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant that impairs a child’s ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn. Every year, thousands of Americans die as a result of dirty air and unregulated pollution, and for years this tragedy has been ignored. These Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, though 21 years late, will save 11,000 lives every year, prevent 100,000 heart and asthma attacks annually, and create thousands of new jobs. And they finally put to rest a decade of impunity for the nation’s dirtiest polluters from having to clean up their toxic and deadly messes.

But the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard doesn't make up for the slap in the face that Obama planted just a few months earlier, when he called off a rule to reduce life-threatening ozone pollution. That rule would have saved up to 12,000 lives every year, prevented 58,000 asthma attacks, and avoided 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits.

There’s no more room for failure on his campaign promises. The corporate elite shouldn’t get to prey on or dump on the rest of America. He must deliver on his promises to free us from the tyranny of dirty energy and political paybacks.

There are some easy things he can pull off this year, the last of his first, and possibly only, term. These decisions are a long time coming, some are court-ordered, and each will bring massive economic and health benefits to the American public:

  1. Reject the Keystone XL Pipeline, a major pipeline that would carry the dirtiest form of energy on the planet from the dirtiest project on earth through America’s heartland and one of our most crucial sources of freshwater. This infrastructure project would lock us into a filthy future in oil, replete with nasty oil spills and record-breaking carbon emissions. The president did the right thing in November by sending the project back for more environmental review. But Congress gave the president 60 days to decide on future of this pipeline. The White House has said that is nowhere near adequate time to conduct the necessary reviews, signaling that the unrealistic deadline means certain rejection. The president has 13 days left. He must reject this pipeline.
  2. Restore clean water protections for streams, rivers and wetlands. He must follow through on his proposal to replace a George W. Bush guidance that significantly narrowed protections for waters; and he must deliver on the promise of a rule that further restores our longstanding Clean Water Act protections. The Bush guidance, issued as a favor to industry polluters, stripped 59 percent of our nation’s streams and headwaters and 20 million acres of wetlands bare from protections that long safeguarded them for swimming, fishing, drinking water, and wildlife habitats. President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have been working on a guidance to restore decades of Clean Water Act safeguards--but friends of industry polluters in Congress have been waging an all-out campaign to kill the guidance.
  3. Stop the outright devastation of Appalachia by mountaintop removal mining. The administration did show a strong commitment to the law and science by vetoing one of the largest mountaintop removal mines ever proposed, Spruce No. 1 in West Virginia. But coal companies and their lobbyists are pushing for more than 100 new mountaintop removal mining permits, seeking permission to blow more mountains up and destroy more mountain streams in even more communities. When so many local communities are facing the same level of devastation, one permit denied is just not enough. If the Obama administration issues more unlawful and harmful permits, coal companies could fill more than 300 valleys, level 30,000+ mountain acres, destroy over 100 miles of streams, and pollute many more waterways. The stakes could not be higher. We need to see a commitment to the law and science this year.
  4. Finish standards that protect Americans from toxic coal ash. Coal ash—the byproduct of coal-fired power plants—is filled with dangerous heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, lead, selenium and much more. Communities near some unlined coal ash ponds are at a 1-in-50 risk of developing cancer—2,000 times greater than what is deemed acceptable. 140 million tons of coal ash are generated every year, and this waste is often dumped into unlined and unprotected ponds and landfills. Our household garbage is better regulated than toxic coal ash. Nearly three years ago, a massive coal ash dump owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Kingston, TN, collapsed, spilling over 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash across 300 acres. There are hundreds more sites just like TVA that are disasters waiting to happen. It’s past time for the Obama administration, which started a rule, to finalize it and ensure that this toxic, nasty stuff is treated and disposed of like what it is: hazardous waste.
  5. Hold the worst global warming polluters accountable. The EPA has twice delayed limits on global warming pollution from power plants, the largest source of this pollution. President Obama promised to address climate change, and limiting the nation’s worst offenders is a humble start. EPA Administrator Jackson has promised these limits will come in proposal form at the start of the new year, and in final form in the summer of 2012.
  6. Strengthen protections for our National Forests. Once about every 20-30 years comes an updated rule for protecting our National Forests, 193 million acres of some of our most prized woodlands and waters, and the source of drinking water for 124 million Americans. Our current Forest Planning Rule dates back to President Reagan in 1982, and we need an updated rule to address today’s development problems and strained water resources in our forests. President Obama is facing no significant pushback on replacing it with an ironclad rule that honors America’s natural heritage. But, in a grand missed opportunity, when the administration unveiled its new draft rule last winter, the proposal included dangerous roll-back of our wildlife safeguards and lacked standards that will ensure the protection of critical waters and watersheds. Without such requirements, the protection of our streams, rivers and important watersheds will be subject to shifting politics and local development pressures. The administration should fix this draft before it becomes final in the coming weeks.

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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.