Stand up for your right to breathe

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to loosen emission-control requirements challenges the political viability of the clean-air movement and opens the door to a potentially unstoppable series of policies that could be disastrous to public health and the environment. Unless this unpopular move is overturned, the rest of the Bush administration’s proposed energy policy will almost certainly follow, uncontested by Congress. And for people in the Appalachian region, the stakes are particularly high.

The New Source Review provision was added to the Clean Air Act to safeguard the public’s health. The Clean Air Act required all new coal-burning power plants to meet strict emission-control standards; existing plants were exempted from the rules. NSR, however, compelled the owners of those older plants to upgrade emission-control systems whenever a plant’s generating capacity was expanded.

But the EPA’s new ruling circumvents this safeguard, allowing those older plants to expand their generating capacity without improving emissions controls. Unless this decision is reversed, areas already suffering from acute health and environmental problems caused by ground-level ozone, particulate sulfur dioxide, acid rain, nitrogen deposition and mercury contamination will now see those problems get worse.

Last January, when the EPA first announced that this policy change was being seriously considered, the White House received an unprecedented flood of mail, phone calls and e-mail opposing the move. As a result, the decision was quietly put aside and, many hoped, permanently abandoned. In the wake of the midterm elections, however, those policy-makers are now boldly and blatantly pandering to industrial interests while ignoring public-health concerns.

In the past two years, strong clean-air legislation has been passed in North Carolina, Illinois, New York and California. A major court decision in New Jersey mandated a power plant cleanup in that state. Public awareness of the health effects of power-plant pollution is growing, and the accompanying political pressure is having a dramatic effect on lawmakers and regulators nationwide.

Progress has been made. Suddenly, however, the EPA has decided to take us in the opposite direction.

During the last two years, health organizations, environmental groups, business owners, editorial staffs and community leaders in North Carolina joined forces to form an overwhelming political groundswell that resulted in the near-unanimous passage of the N.C. Clean Smokestacks Act. But in Western North Carolina (which includes the most polluted national park in the country), improving air quality will also require action by other states and the federal government. The EPA decision has dampened hopes that the people of this region will have relief from polluted air any time soon.

This summer, the American Lung Association released a study indicating that Cherokee children develop asthma at a rate two-and-a-half times the national average, due largely to power-plant pollution. The study was conducted in Cherokee (in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park), but doctors, school officials and members of the business community throughout Western North Carolina will vouch for the fact that respiratory diseases in children and the elderly have dramatically increased in recent years. This has resulted in more absences from school, in parents taking more family-leave time from work, in higher medical costs, and in increased pressure on hospital-bed capacity.

We all have to breathe. And all of us — whether we’re Republicans, Democrats or independents; conservatives or liberals; and regardless of our color, age, economic status, religious background or personal beliefs — may have children, grandchildren or elderly relatives.

Throughout our country’s history, whenever a great injustice was flagrantly perpetrated against a significant portion of the population, a movement to correct that injustice emerged. Beginning with the issue of taxation without representation (which led to the founding of our nation) — and continuing with the issues of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and civil rights — each injustice was met and overcome by a massive, determined effort of the people.

We all have the unalienable right to breathe clean air; no one has the right to do this to our children. This misguided and potentially devastating EPA policy must be overturned. Once again, the sea of indignation must rise as we exercise our rights and peacefully mobilize the overwhelming power of the people within our beloved democratic form of government to correct a glaring injustice.

[Avram Friedman is executive director of the Canary Coalition (866-4CANARY; www.canarycoalition.org).]

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