A Defining Moment for EPA and America's Health

New, hostile Congress readies attack on clean air standards

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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.

Earthjustice and our supporters, allies, and clients have worked tirelessly for more than a decade to secure numerous important health standards, and we are now closer than ever to realizing their substantial benefits. The politics might be hazy, but the law and the science are on our side. We are standing on a mountain of good court decisions that confirm the EPA’s responsibility to issue clean air standards that protect our health.

Over the past two years, the agency has been working diligently—for the first time in quite a while—to be a credible protector of the environment. In the long-term struggle to protect all Americans’ right to breathe clean air, we cannot allow short-term political pressure to change that.

The EPA’s critics, however, are brazenly applying political pressure to protect the interests of big polluters by paralyzing the agency. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)—the polluter-friendly chair-to-be of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—has publicly stated that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will be summoned to testify before his committee so often that she should be given her own parking space on Capitol Hill. But Upton and his ilk are jeopardizing far more than the EPA’s agenda with such ostentatious political grandstanding.

They are placing American lives at risk.

For example, two health protections related to smog and cancer-causing air pollution that the EPA is currently considering could save as many as 17,000 lives every year, as well as prevent annually more than 8,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 24,000 hospital and emergency room visits, 90,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and millions of days of missed work or school. When you consider that these standards could also save Americans more than $100 billion in health care costs every year, it’s hard to imagine anything more sensible.

But big polluters and their allies have trained their crosshairs on these public health protections, claiming the tremendous benefits to society aren’t as important as the modest costs they’ll have to pay to operate without making people sick. It’s certain that the attacks on the EPA and the laws it administers will only intensify in the coming months.

We have already seen this political fight begin to take its toll. Last week, the EPA announced its intention to delay final decisions on the two aforementioned life- and cost-saving standards that would reduce dangerous air pollution. But delaying the political fight won’t succeed in making the issue less contentious. It will succeed, however, in ensuring that Americans continue to pay for air pollution with their lives, health and dollars.

The best path forward is to not shy from the fight. We certainly won’t. The fight will unfold on two related fronts in the coming months: climate and health.

On Jan. 3, the EPA is expected to roll out the next phase of its efforts to curb global warming pollution. Industry groups challenged the EPA’s efforts in court, but Earthjustice and our allies intervened in the case and have won the first round, allowing the first greenhouse gas regulations to go into effect. We and our allies will continue fighting in the courts, on Capitol Hill and at the White House to ensure these efforts move forward without delay. We will need your support.

The second front involves numerous upcoming health standards, including efforts to reduce tiny particulate pollution that lodges easily in people’s lungs, as well as toxic air pollutants like mercury released by coal-fired power plants. Americans stand to reap tremendous benefits from these health standards, and they must move forward without delay.

Much of this work is the culmination of years, even decades, of litigation, advocacy and community engagement. Politics are transient, but the right to breathe is everlasting. We must move ahead to secure health protections that will keep us safe today and for generations to come, regardless of whether political winds are at our backs or in our faces.



Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”