We Said Run the Country, Not Ruin It

Somewhere along the road from their home districts to their offices in Washington, D.C., our Congressional representatives got their wires crossed. The American public sent them forth with a mandate to run the country, but instead, they’re ruining it. Toward the end of September, the House passed the first piece of House Majority Leader Eric…

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Somewhere along the road from their home districts to their offices in Washington, D.C., our Congressional representatives got their wires crossed. The American public sent them forth with a mandate to run the country, but instead, they’re ruining it.

Toward the end of September, the House passed the first piece of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) Toxic Agenda: H.R. 2401, the so-called TRAIN Act—an absolute wreck of public policy. It ties to the tracks and threatens to run over two clean air standards that would prevent up to 51,000 premature deaths every year and generate $420 billion in annual economic benefits by cleaning up dirty coal plants.

Does America support Cantor’s agenda? Do we want to board a crazy train bound for a future of dirty air, more disease and shorter lives? The answer, not surprisingly, is No. NO.

Recent polling shows that 75 percent of voters—including 62 percent of Cantor’s party—think that the Environmental Protection Agency, not Congress, should make decisions about clean air standards. Large majorities are also against delaying (67 percent) or blocking (76 percent) the clean air standards that Cantor’s TRAIN wreck is colliding with.

But the House is, nonetheless, rolling forward with its agenda to ruin-not-run the country. Full steam ahead. In early October, it voted to increase mercury pollution, premature death and disease by outright exempting cement kilns—the nation’s second worst mercury polluter, behind only the power plants that the TRAIN Act already ran over—from the Clean Air Act. It is well-established that mercury exposure causes brain and developmental damage to fetuses, babies and young children. The bill, H.R. 2681, also changes current law to encourage kilns to burn tires, scrap plastics, used chemicals and other industrial garbage.

Alex Allred, a longtime ally of Earthjustice, lives near three cement kilns. In a guest blog at unEarthed, she wrote:

This is not an issue about the economy or industry or free enterprise. This is my life. This is the life of my children and my neighbors. This is our future. Please don’t sell it out to the greedy interests of a dirty industry that should and could have cleaned up more than a decade ago.

Earthjustice’s Jim Pew, whose dogged litigation over the past decade brought about the strong clean air standards for cement kilns that the House voted to undo, said, “Does the House of Representatives think that not enough babies are being born with developmental damage due to mercury poisoning?”

Apparently not, because just last Thursday it voted to exempt industrial boilers and incinerators—the third largest source of mercury and other toxic air pollution—from the Clean Air Act. This bill, H.R. 2250, also encourages the burning of industrial garbage in uncontrolled, unmonitored facilities. For the neighbors of these facilities, the bill deprives them of finding out what wastes are being burned or what toxic pollutants are generated as a result.

Taken together, H.R. 2681 and H.R. 2250 will cause up to 9,000 premature deaths every year. If you’re playing along at home, that’s a total of up to 60,000 unnecessary, preventable deaths caused by air pollution every year thanks to the votes for Rep. Cantor’s Toxic Agenda.

Outraged yet? Take a look at how your representative voted.

If these votes aren’t being cast in the interest of the American public, whose interests are being served? Polluters, plain and simple. The operators of dirty industrial facilities don’t want to pay for their pollution. They want us to do it—with higher medical bills, with reduced wages from missing work, with diminished quality of life. They claim it’s about jobs, but peer-reviewed EPA studies and numerous independent analyses have shown over and over again that clean air protections are Good. For. The. Economy.

Sadly, there’s more. On Friday, the House wanted to serve up one last favor to the polluters before heading out for a week-long recess. Literally just before dashing out of town, it voted to block the EPA from regulating toxic coal ash, despite the mounting evidence that arsenic, lead and other toxic metals from coal ash are contaminating groundwater at hundreds of sites across the country. Proponents of the bill again argue in economic terms, but a recent study from Tufts University found that federal regulations for coal ash could provide 28,000 new jobs every year.

These public health protections are priorities for Earthjustice. We have worked for years, decades in some cases, to secure protections against coal ash and strong clean air standards for the nation’s dirtiest industries: coal-fired power plants, cement kilns, and industrial boilers and incinerators. Along the way, our supporters have sent emails, made phone calls, attended public hearings and contributed in many other ways. It’s clear that the House of Representatives supports the Toxic Agenda to take away all of this hard work, and it’s also clear that the American people do not.

Perhaps sensitive to this fact, the White House indicated it will veto 3-out-of-4 of these bills—while not issuing a veto threat, they declared themselves unequivocally opposed to the coal ash bill. That’s good news, but Americans may have to count on the administration to follow through on their opposition and not cave to political pressure like they did on the badly needed ozone standards.

The fate of clean air standards and other public health protections in this country shouldn’t be determined by political pressures, but it is. To ensure that they happen—an outcome the American people certainly wants—we the public have to maintain pressure to counter the deep pockets and sharp elbows of the polluter lobby. A real fight is emerging as these bills move to the Senate, and we’ll be counting on your support to ensure that no part of Cantor’s Toxic Agenda slips through. If their goal is to ruin the country, our goal should be to ruin their plans.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.