Scientists estimate that adopting strong curbs on ozone pollution—commonly referred to as smog—could save up to 12,000 lives every year, prevent 58,000 asthma attacks and avoid 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits. These health benefits are valued as high as $100 billion annually. But some of the Obama administration’s recent decisions have allowed politics to stall or derail sound environmental policy, setting a bad precedent for protecting the public from dangerous ozone pollution.
President Obama came into office vowing to reverse many of the environmentally harmful decisions of the previous administration and committing that “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health.” The Administration’s pending decision on setting the national air quality standards for ozone will be a crucial test of the President’s resolve to depart from the approach of the George W. Bush administration, where politics routinely trumped science in key public health matters.
When President Bush considered the health standards for smog, the EPA’s own science advisors unanimously recommended a health standard at a point somewhere between 60–70 parts per billion (ppb). The nation’s leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics, also called for a standard at the low (most protective) end of this range. Despite this consensus, the Bush administration set the standard at 75ppb—contrary to the advice of doctors and scientists.
Under President Obama, the EPA agreed to reconsider the Bush administration’s decision and in January 2010 proposed to strengthen the smog health standard to within the 60-70ppb range as supported by the overwhelming medical evidence. But 18 months later, the EPA has yet to finalize revised smog pollution standards.
“Every day that we delay the implementation of badly needed ozone standards, children, the elderly, and patients with chronic diseases will suffer needlessly and the financially stressed healthcare system will bear needless costs,” said Alan H. Lockwood MD, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University at Buffalo. “The EPA must fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment by translating the overwhelming evidence from scientists and physicians into effective regulations to protect the health of all Americans from the damage caused by ozone.”
Where clean air is concerned, the Obama administration had a strong start in adopting mercury controls for cement plants, the first-ever measures to limit greenhouse gases, and proposed major cuts to toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. However, in several recent environmental actions, the Obama administration’s decisions have been more reminiscent of the Bush Administration in elevating political considerations over its stated commitments to protect public health, base its decisions on scientific evidence, and respect the law.
In particular, the administration has sacrificed these core principles in an attempt to placate industry groups who have raised loud complaints about having to clean up their toxic pollution—even when doing so sacrifices community health, ignores scientific evidence and flouts the law. Just a few weeks ago the EPA evaded a court order to issue long-overdue standards to control the toxic emissions from industrial boilers. These facilities, which number in the thousands and include the on-site power plants at giant industrial facilities like chemical plants, refineries and paper mills, are among the nation’s worst polluters.
The EPA’s emission standards for industrial boilers are more than a decade overdue, and a federal court recently ordered the agency to issue them without further delay. Flouting the court’s order, the EPA published the rules in March but then promptly rendered them meaningless by indefinitely delaying the date they take effect. Remarkably, the EPA itself had calculated that, each year, the rules will save up to 6,500 lives as well as preventing thousands of heart attacks and emergency room visits, tens of thousands of asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of missed days of school and work. Thus, the EPA’s decision to delay the rule’s benefits will cause thousands of deaths and widespread suffering. That decision is antithetical to protecting communities, has no scientific basis, and demonstrates contempt for both Congress and the courts.
Regulations for toxic coal ash dumps and waste ponds that have been a promise of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson since she took office in January 2009 are now delayed until 2012, at the earliest, despite growing evidence of damage and the increasing toxicity of the waste. Coal ash is the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream—enough coal ash is generated each year to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole. The ash is filled with toxic levels of arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury and other dangerous pollutants. A massive spill in Kingston, TN, dumped more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash onto 300 acres of rivers and nearby land in December 2008. Two dozen homes were destroyed or damaged, and two and a half years later, the cleanup continues and we still do not have a comprehensive set of federal safeguards to prevent another similar disaster from happening.
Fifty massive coal ash dump sites across the country have been rated “high hazard,” meaning a failure at any one of these sites would likely result in a loss of human life. Yet despite over a hundred documented instances of water contamination and hundreds of aging and unstable coal ash waste ponds and dumps, the EPA has yet to finalize federal regulations. The power industry has heavily lobbied both the EPA and the White House to adopt, in lieu of enforceable federal regulations, guidelines that do little to change the status quo of ineffective health and environmental protections.
Despite the overwhelming benefits of these proposed standards—cleaner water, thousands of lives saved each year, major reductions in asthma, heart disease, respiratory ailments, cancer and other illnesses—industrial polluters are doggedly lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to delay and block these health protections. Unfortunately, on these rules the administration seems to be listening to the special interests.
The EPA, after repeatedly postponing a final decision on the ozone standard proposed in January 2010, has said it will issue a final decision by July 29 of this year. This decision will be pivotal as to whether science or politics will drive the agenda for the remainder of the President’s term. Adopting an ozone standard at the most protective end of the 60–70 ppb range will avoid up to 111,000 upper and lower respiratory symptoms, 2.5 million missed days at school or work, and 2,200 cases of chronic bronchitis. Opportunity knocks to truly protect public health and the environment. Will President Obama answer by tightening the limits on smog pollution?