Death By Pollution: How the Obama Administration Just Put Thousands of Lives at Risk

It must be election season. Like other prominent Democrats, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has been making the rounds. Two weeks ago she popped up on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and explained that regulating toxins like mercury from coal burners across the country would prevent thousands of deaths and create jobs. She even rallied people to action.

“Environmentalism is not a spectator sport,” Jackson told Stewart, as if she was encouraging viewers to turn off their televisions and get busy. “You actually have to stand up and demand that we be vigilant in protecting our air and water.”

It was certainly a boisterous display of support for stronger environmental statues, something Jackson happens to know a little bit about. However, just one week after Jackson’s Comedy Central performance the EPA indefinitely delayed essential health protections designed to reduce public exposure to airborne toxins such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and acid gases by thousands of tons per year.

It was back in 1990 when President H.W. Bush signed Clean Air Act Amendments into law, requiring the EPA to establish emission standards limiting toxins like mercury from the largest pollution sources. One of these laws, called Boiler MACT, covers emissions from boilers that produce power, like those from large to small coal plants. In February 2011, under court order, the EPA was forced to finally issue these rules. But now the EPA has indefinitely delayed the law from going into effect.

“Two years ago the Obama administration took office vowing to protect public health and respect the law,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew shortly after the EPA’s announcement. “Today’s action disserves both of these principles. By the EPA’s own calculations, the health protections it has elected to delay would save up to 6,500 lives each year.”

In fact, according to the EPA itself, more than 4,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 1,600 cases of acute bronchitis and 313,000 missed work and school days would be avoided if the law was enacted — not to mention upwards of 6,600 premature deaths. All these benefits, despite the fact that the proposal had been dramatically watered down after industry pushed the EPA to weaken its original draft of the rule early last summer.

“It appears that EPA has addressed many of the industry complaints while still putting out standards that would bring significant public health benefits,” Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch told Greenwire. “Let’s hope that EPA stands its ground when industries argue for further changes.”

But the EPA didn’t stand its ground. It soon backed off and has now delayed the rule indefinitely.

By all accounts the action to protect human health by regulating toxic emissions is long overdue. While there are several major air pollutants at play, mercury may be the most significant. One the largest producers of airborne mercury happens to be coal plants. This pollution ends up in water, poisoning fish and the humans that eat them. And the poisoning is rampant.

In August 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of mercury contamination in fish in 291 streams around the country. The study, which is the most comprehensive to date, was conducted from 1998 to 2005 and tested over 1,000 fish. Every fish tested, including those from isolated rural waterways, contained at least trace amounts of toxic mercury. According to the researchers, the majority of mercury in the streams tested came from coal plants.

This pollution has a direct impact on human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, putting approximately 322,000 newborns at risk of neurological deficits. Mercury exposure can also lead to increased cardiovascular risk in adults.

In response to the USGS study, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “This science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation’s waterways, and protect the public from potential health dangers.”

Nonetheless, industry is no doubt pleased with the EPA’s announcement to delay regulating emissions from power plants. Since 2006 the EPA has been under court order to complete its boiler emissions ruling. The agency extended deadlines a number of times. Finally, after years or procrastination, the final issuing was set for January 2011. House Republicans weren’t pleased and a month before the law went into effect the EPA caved and sought to extend its deadline for another 15 long months. However, the U.S. District Court denied the EPA’s request, stating it had had plenty of time to iron out any wrinkles in the proposed boiler rule.

Since the District Court decided not to back the EPA, Lisa Jackson’s trusted agency went about creating a new so-called reconsideration process for these specific boiler emissions rules. This reconsideration, though, didn’t buy the EPA a lot of time, only 90 days per the guidelines outlined by the Clean Air Act.

Through some pretty imaginative legal maneuvering, the EPA then managed to take the 90-day stay and extend it into an indefinite one. At that point, Lisa Jackson threw the Clean Air Act and all those people who would benefit from this particular boiler ruling under the proverbial bus. “[The] agency has elected to stay the effective date pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), rather than to section 307(d)(7)(B) of the Clean Air Act,” explains the Center for Progressive Reform. “Section 705 of the APA, the EPA explains, provides that ‘an agency . . . may postpone the effective date of [an] action taken by it pending judicial review’–provided that the agency finds that ‘justice’ requires staying the effectiveness of the rule until judicial review has been completed. Thus, the EPA set about cobbling together a weak explanation of why ‘justice’ requires an indefinite stay of the Boiler MACT rule’s effective date.”

It is difficult to understand how delaying a ruling that will save thousands of lives could be halted over concerns of “justice.” But then again, the delay is not about justice, it’s about politics. With the 2012 elections fast approaching, the Obama administration and their go-to gal Lisa Jackson at the EPA are putting reelection aspirations ahead of public and environmental health.

By sidelining the ruling indefinitely, even with court challenges that are likely to come because of the EPA’s blatant disregard for the Clean Air Act, any decision on the Boiler MACT rule will not happen until after election 2012. Obama clearly fears the polluters’ retaliation far more than any backlash from eco-minded voters. As such, he and the EPA have pandered to the Tea Party and its mantra that regulation intrudes on the free market and the will of the people.

In the meantime, what are the people living near toxic coal plants supposed to do? According to CoalSwarm, 126 coal burning plants are located near residential areas, accounting for 17.5 percent of total U.S. coal power capacity. A total of 6.11 million people live within three miles of these plants and have an average per capita income of just over $18,500, which is 14 percent lower than the average American. Not surprisingly, 43.7 percebt of these folks are people of color.

With Lisa Jackson’s and the EPA’s delay on the boiler emissions ruling, the Democrats and President Obama have turned their backs on the most disenfranchised and vulnerable among us. This action is not only unforgivable, it is a death sentence for thousands of people who could be spared.


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