Forty years ago, we wore bell bottoms and trouser suits, were infatuated with lava lamps … and breathed dirty air. Thankfully, more than our tastes have changed. Because of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the air is cleaner, and we are healthier.
You need only consider the damage caused by polluted air—children wheezing with asthma, fish contaminated by mercury, days of school and work missed due to illness, serious diseases such as cancer, and even premature death—to see that clean air is essential for good health.
That is precisely what led President Nixon in 1970 to sign the Clean Air Act. His hope was that the historic legislation would put the nation on a path to provide “clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America.”
Clean Air is a Smart Investment
The Clean Air Act has proven a remarkable success. In its first 20 years, more than 200,000 premature deaths and 18 million cases of respiratory illness in children were prevented. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson reported recently, “The total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. For every dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return.” In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed amendments that toughened emission standards for nearly two hundred of the most toxic, cancer-causing air pollutants, the Clean Air Act became an even better tool for protecting human health.
There is more that needs to be done to fulfill the Clean Air Act’s promise. Far too many Americans are still breathing dirty air and suffering as a result, thanks to a handful of polluting industries that fight clean air laws tooth and nail. Their profits take precedent over our health, despite the benefits that clean air provides to our economy and our society.
Pressure From the Inside
Polluters and their allies have spent decades negotiating exemptions for power plants, slandering science, misleading the public and pressuring the EPA with untruths and propaganda. As a result, coal-fired power plants continue to emit millions of tons of toxic air pollution every year. They are by far the country’s largest source of mercury, which impairs the ability of growing children to think and learn.
Coal-fired power plants also emit particulate matter, lead, arsenic, acid gases and cancer-causing pollutants such as benzene. The technology to reduce this kind of pollution isn’t years away. It’s available now, but many big polluters simply don’t want to spend money on pollution controls. Thanks to our litigation, the EPA is now under a court-ordered deadline to issue the first ever national emission limits on toxic air pollution from coal plants. Additionally, we went to court and won a decision that Bush-era standards for particulate matter, one of the deadliest forms of air pollution, were wholly inadequate. The EPA is currently considering stronger protections for this dangerous pollutant. New standards are expected sometime in 2011.
These and other pending proposals by the EPA, including rules to reduce toxic pollution from industrial boilers—which will save an estimated 4,900 lives and $38 billion every year according to EPA—have the potential to improve the lives of many Americans by reducing toxic air pollution in our communities. But polluters will escalate their campaign to avoid, weaken, derail, and kill these rules with bogus claims that healthy economies and healthy communities are mutually exclusive. They aren’t. Improvements to air quality are actually an engine of economic growth and innovation. In the case of industrial boilers, for example, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies—the state authorities that actually implement clean air protections—predicted in a recent report that adding pollution control equipment to boilers could create up to 40,000 new jobs in the coming years.
The Best is Yet To Come
The Clean Air Act has successfully improved our health and our economy, thanks to the hard work of those leaders who pushed for strong protections in the face of tremendous opposition. Because clean air fosters healthy communities and a stronger economy, Earthjustice will continue working to protect Americans’ right to breathe by securing the strongest possible health protections and preventing the most dangerous polluters from dodging their legal requirements to clean up our air. The Clean Air Act has helped us accomplish a great deal over the last 40 years, and that’s only the beginning.