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A Singular Day for Clean Air: Safeguards for 45,000 Lives Are Debated in Courts

Peter Lehner's picture
NRDC

I am the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is my second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, I led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the...

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Asthma and Air Pollution

Peter Lehner, Executive Director, New York City

When it comes to reducing the outdoor air pollution that triggers asthma, the state of Connecticut has done many things right: it requires tailpipe emissions checks for vehicles, has installed pollution controls on power plants, and is considering raising the amount of clean, renewable power in its energy mix. Yet the asthma rate for children here is a full two percentage points higher than nationwide; adult asthma rates in the state are also consistently higher than the national average. In 2009, 50 people in Connecticut died of asthma-related causes.

Despite efforts to clear its own air, Connecticut can’t control the wind, and everyone knows which way it’s blowing: from west to east, bringing in a toxic mix of air pollution from beyond state lines. In New Haven, researchers estimate that 93 percent of asthma-triggering ozone pollution comes from outside the state. According to a standard issued under the Obama administration, which was struck down in an appeals court last year, polluting states upwind need to clean up their act.

“They’re getting away with murder,” Connecticut governor Daniel Molloy told the New York Times.  

The Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments for and against this standard, a clean air safeguard designed to prevent the premature deaths of 34,000 people every year from deadly air pollution that crosses state lines. The EPA argued its case opposite several “upwind” states, representatives of the coal industry and other industrial polluters. And on the same day in Washington, despite the snowstorm that shut down most of the federal government, another Clean Air Act safeguard, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, which prevents 11,000 premature deaths every year, was under attack from polluters at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court.

It’s not every day that our courts have such a singular opportunity to stand behind clean air laws that are designed to protect the health of millions of Americans. Together, these safeguards will prevent 45,000 deaths and half a million asthma attacks every year. They will help keep hundreds of thousands of people out of hospitals and emergency rooms, stay in school and at work, able to get outside, exercise, and lead a normal life. The Cross-State Air Pollution rule alone protects the health of 240 million Americans in the Midwest and eastern United States.

Polluters have attempted to attack health protections like these every step of the way in the 43-year history of the Clean Air Act. They seek to cast doubt on science, they inflate costs, they threaten blackouts and staggering economic setbacks. We’ve seen this with acid rain controls, which cost 80 percent less than industry predicted, and now prevent 19,000 premature deaths each year. Industry told the courts that phasing out ozone-depleting CFC’s would cause hospitals and office buildings to overheat. But justice prevailed, the law was upheld, and we got the job done, years ahead of schedule, without anyone breaking a sweat—and at 30 percent of the predicted costs. In fact, when you look at the Clean Air Act benefits over the years, the act boasts better returns than Warren Buffet.

Under the Clean Air Act, we all have a right to breathe clean air, no matter who we are or where we live. Smog, soot, mercury and toxic pollution from power plants kill and sicken hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. The courts should stand on the side of the people and uphold the laws that protect us from polluters and protect our health.

Photo Credit: Asthma and Air Pollution/shutterstock

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