EPA lawsuits not `nuisances'; they are essential to protecting public health
(Editor's note: The author, Jennifer Lyons, is the Georgia AirKeepers campaign director for Ozone Action.)
THE TITLE of Paul Cleveland's Jan. 20 column (EPA's nuisance lawsuits exact an expensive toll) perfectly captured the way he misstated what is at stake with the Environmental Protection Agency's lawsuits concerning the clean-up of power plants. These lawsuits came about because public health was being compromised by utilities more concerned with their financial bottom line than the price being paid by the public with their health.
The EPA's lawsuit against the seven large utilities did not come about randomly or capriciously. When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1977, older coal-fired power plants, including all eleven in Georgia, were exempted from having to meet the new emission standards that modern plants would have to meet. The loophole in the Clean Air Act was created because utilities argued that it was not cost-effective to clean up these older plants that would soon be phased out in favor of newer plants. They were given this provision with the understanding that if they were ever to modify a plant to increase its generating capacity or extend the life of the plant, then at that time they must install the technology to bring emissions in line with the newer standards of the modern plants.
Thirty years later, almost all of these grandfathered plants are still operating and polluting at levels from 2.5 to 9 times higher than the newer plants. This is not a "nuisance," but rather it is a serious threat to public health. Georgia ranks third in the nation for the number of smog days last year with 72 days when the air was unhealthy to breathe.
In Georgia, smog pollution is responsible for more than 240,000 asthma attacks and sends 5,100 people to the emergency room each year. More people die in Georgia each year from particulate emissions than die in car crashes.
MORE AND more health studies are concluding that there is a need for a new health-based standard for pollution from power plants. The old standard was decided by Congress, not medical professionals, and before better technology allowed doctors to more accurately measure when air pollution begins to affect lung tissue. The reality is that any exposure to very low levels of atmospheric ozone and particulate pollution does decrease lung capacity. This is why there was a need to replace the old politically determined standards with ones that better reflect the pollution levels at which public health is jeopardized.
Cleveland wrongly asserted that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down these new standards because they were not based in sound science. Actually, the court never challenged the scientific basis for the new standard, rather it challenged the process EPA used to set the new standard. This is currently being appealed and has not yet been decided.
The EPA did not initiate the lawsuit against the utilities because it had failed to achieve its way on the new standard, but because it charged that the utilities were breaking the law established in the Clean Air Act. The utilities are being charged with illegally increasing the capacity of their plants without also reducing emissions. They knowingly exposed the public to greater amounts of pollution to increase their own profits.
Cleveland believes that the remedy to all our problems in dealing with public health issues is to pass legislation requiring cost-benefit analysis. This misses the whole spirit of the Clean Air Act, which requires that air quality standards be based on protection of public health. Cleveland's suggestion is tantamount to eliminating the cornerstone of the law that protects the public from dangerous air pollution. However, it should be noted that it is estimated that the Clean Air Act has saved much more money than it has cost. For every dollar spent to clean the air from 1970-1990, $44 was saved in medical and other costs.
THE LEGACY of the Clean Air Act is that some of the worst violators of our air quality have been stopped, but we still have a ways to go before our air is healthy. The EPA is doing its job and we as citizens should support them in that endeavor. Informed policy decisions come about when we have our priorities straight. Protecting public health is more important than any "nuisance" that may be suffered by polluters.