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The Right to Breathe

As 2011 approaches, scores of online outlets are eulogizing the Hollywood stars, musicians, authors, and other icons who died this year. While it’s only natural to reflect on what was lost, there’s also a powerful story to be told about a huge group of people who didn’t die—though it may not get the attention won by familiar names and faces.

It's always been amazing to me just how much money polluters are willing to spend to try to convince lawmakers and the American public that public health and safety regulations will cost them too much money.

Seat belts and airbags, now standard features in all cars and trucks, were fought tooth and nail by the auto industry, which claimed they would be too costly and unpopular. It took the federal government 20 years to stand up to industry pressure and finally require life-saving airbags.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is a little more than halfway through an amazing week-long series called "Mapping Mortality" that focuses on air pollution in western Pennsylvania. Reporters Don Hopey and David Templeton spent a year interviewing more than 100 people, including Lee Lasich, who uses all of her fingers to enumerate the deaths of friends and neighbors from brain and pancreatic cancers in her Clairton, PA neighborhood.

What stands between Americans and clean air isn't science, technology, or the law. It's politics. Last month, I wrote that the incoming House leadership of the new Congress is already beating the war drum in anticipation of taking down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the critical health protections it is required by law to enact.

This is a defining moment.

It takes chutzpah to assert that there aren't enough skilled workers—during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression—to comply with EPA regulations to reduce air pollution. But the power sector has done just that. For example, American Electric Power Co. has suggested that there are not enough specialized workers to comply with air pollution reduction regulations.

Thankfully, organized labor has forcefully rebutted these claims.

Clean air just isn't as popular as it should be. Though reducing air pollution saves lives and money, some lawmakers seem hell-bent on denying these benefits to the American public. They seem to believe that nothing should hinder polluters' ability to make a buck, not even the prevalence of asthma, birth defects, heart disease, cancer, and other ailments that results from dirty air emissions.

After years of fighting with the EPA and the local air district to improve air quality in California's smoggy San Joaquin Valley—and often feeling like all of our progress was being made in court—we're finally seeing some change, at least at the federal level.

Through persistent administrative advocacy, we were able to convince EPA to reject the local district's do-nothing regulation covering sources that burn coal, petcoke, tires, biomass and municipal solid waste in the Valley.

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