Congress Trumping the Clean Air Act

The news out of Washington has not been kind to those who value a healthy environment. President Trump has proposed cutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a staggering 31-percent in his 2018 operating budget, a monetary reduction that would devastate the agency tasked with ensuring, among other things, that the air we breathe is safe. If you think that’s bad, Congress is acting to one-up him with legislation designed to subvert the Clean Air Act. The Ozone Standards Implementation Act of 2017 (H.R. 806/S.263), also known as the Smoggy Skies Act, delays the enforcement of the most recent EPA ozone standards, and completely undermines the public health premise of the Clean Air Act by forcing the EPA to make decisions about air safety based on the cost to polluters.

The new standards are projected by the EPA to prevent 230,000 asthma attacks in children and up to 660 premature deaths.

This is an egregious example of poor public policy, and it’s going to depend on New York Representatives like John Faso, Elise Stefanik, John Katko, Claudia Tenney, and Tom Reed prioritizing the health and safety of the people they represent.

Some background: On October 1, 2015, the EPA reduced the allowable amount of ground level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, based on the latest public health findings. Ozone occurs in two forms: the first exists in the stratosphere and protects life on earth from the sun’s radiation, commonly referred to as the ozone layer. The second is the aforementioned ground level ozone, otherwise known as as “smog,” created when nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds react in sunlight. This second type of ozone has been shown to reduce lung function and exacerbate chronic respiratory diseases, including asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis, and even result in premature death.

Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the effects of ozone. As Americans, we pride ourselves on not placing a price tag on our citizen’s lives, but that’s exactly what will happen if we rewrite the law to allow fiscal scrutiny to carry the same weight as health data when determining what constitutes safe air. In fact, the EPA estimates that starting in 2025, these updated standards will result in up to $5.9 billion dollars in public health benefits, factoring in massive reductions in emergency room visits and missed school and work days.

These numbers also illustrate the importance of ever-evolving scientific studies on setting public policy. Doctor Monica Kraft, former president of the American Thoracic Society, testified against the bill during a May 23rd hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. Referring to a provision of the legislation that lengthens the review period for air pollution health standards from once every five years to once every ten years, Doctor Kraft said, “In the 10-year review lag called for in this bill, a child will grow from a newborn to a 10-year -old. In that time, the lungs, like the rest of the body, will see tremendous changes that will determine life-long health prospects of that child.”

In New York City over the 1966 Thanksgiving weekend, smog was so bad it prompted members of Congress to write and pass the Clean Air Act in 1970. In 1990, amendments to the Clean Air Act, which expanded NAAQ standards and bolstered enforcement jurisdiction, passed with broad bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate. It was signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, who had sent the proposal to congress the previous year. And when the authority of the EPA to determine air quality standards without considering cost was challenged by the trucking industry, it was upheld in the unanimous 2001 Supreme Court decision Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc.

Until recently, clean, healthy air and protecting our lungs was a bipartisan cause. It must be again.

Sponsors, Representative Pete Olson (R-TX) and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) argue environmental regulations stymie economic growth. However, our economy has more than tripled since the Clean Air Act’s passage while air pollution has been reduced by more than 70-percent. Furthermore, poor air quality threatens the sporting and tourism industries, as Americans are advised to stay indoors on notably bad days.

32 organizations are calling on New York’s congressional delegation to oppose this legislation. As a citizen, contact your congressional representatives today — urge them to put the health of New Yorkers above the special interests their leaders are beholden to and protect our lungs by voting NO on H.R.806 and S.263. Our lungs depend on it.

  • Julia Battista, air & energy associate
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