The Clean Air Act is under attack.
House Republicans have passed a bill to lift restrictions on pollutants in the air we breathe. The Clean Air Act is considered one of the most cost-effective laws ever enacted in the United States. While costing relatively little, it has saved billions of dollars in health care costs due to respiratory and heart diseases. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent report concludes that by 2020, implementation costs of the act will have reached $65 billion while the benefits in health care savings, not to mention lives saved, will reach $2 trillion.
You don’t see many laws that return $30 dollars to taxpayers for everyone dollar invested.
Last week the Republican-controlled House passed the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act (TRAIN). Republicans call it the TRAIN Act, and Democrats call it a train wreck. The bill forestalls standards under the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of those standards.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Republicans would go against an agency brought into being by Richard Nixon and the Clean Air Act, which he signed into law in 1970 with broad Republican support. The law was strengthened by another Republican president, George H.W. Bush. Whatever Republican ideals it once stood for, the EPA and the Clean Air Act are targets of the new breed of Washington Republicans.
The TRAIN Act proposes to do three things: It would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating gasoline, it would loosen restrictions on pollutants from power plants that cross state lines and it would delay the cleanup of mercury, soot and other pollutants at power plant sites.
A recent headline in the conservative newspaper the Washington Times captures the Republican stance on regulation of the planet’s air quality. The headline reads: “Democrats Need to Choose: EPA or Jobs.” The TRAIN Act requires that the EPA make regulatory determinations based not only on science, but their economic impact as well. According to Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum, “Republicans and Tea Party-backed House members are putting ideology ahead of science.”
Republicans argue that EPA regulations are job killers and have focused attention on the proposed rules, saying that tougher emission restrictions will raise electricity rates and put workers out of jobs. McCollum says that the jobs-vs.-clean air argument is a false choice.
Republican authors of the TRAIN Act often cite a Texas utility company called Luminant as an example of how the EPA rules kill jobs. Luminant recently announced it would lay off 500 workers because of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.
But Luminant appears to be the exception. Xcel Energy’s incoming chief told a meeting of investors the work already done by the Minnesota utility company to reduce emissions “puts us in a good position to comply with these rules.” Gale Klappa, the chairman and CEO of Wisconsin Energy, told investors in May, 2011: “We really see very little impact on customer electric rates or our capital plan between now and 2015 as a result of the new EPA regulations that have been proposed.”
Last week Congresswoman McCollum joined the American Lung Association, Environment Minnesota and a specialist in children’s respiratory health to talk about the TRAIN Act. It became clear why she chose Children’s Hospital as the site of her news conference. McCollum cited figures, backed by various studies, that she says show “[b]locking these standards for just one additional year could result in up to 38,000 premature deaths due to smog, soot and toxic air pollution, more than 19,000 heart attacks, more than 200,000 asthma attacks, and four million more missed school and work days.”
According to Ken Bradley of Environment Minnesota, the TRAIN Act creates a panel of cabinet members who will review all of EPA’s standards, but says that panel can only consider costs of implementation and not the savings in lives and health care costs.
Since childhood asthma has been linked to pollutants subject to regulation by the EPA, and because the TRAIN Act loosens restrictions on the amount of pollutants utilities can put into the air, the debate has gotten testy.
In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown, who voted against clean-air standards limiting carbon pollution, and the non-partisan League of Women Voters have gotten into a public brawl. The League says Brown has voted against the health and welfare of children. He countered with his own message about jobs and the economy, but has found it difficult to distance himself from the charge.
The same charge has been leveled at Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The debate raises a serious question: Is a vote in support of polluters a vote against children’s health? Republicans and Tea Party-backed members of Congress call it a cheap shot. The Washington Times story critical of environmentalist backlash against TRAIN says even liberal Democrats don’t believe the health statistics they cite.
Meet Paul Kubic
Dr. Paul Kubic specializes in pediatric lung diseases, practicing across the state, at Children’s Hospitals and Clinic and at Gillete. He says of those in Congress who voted for the TRAIN Act: “I don’t think they are being malicious. I just don’t think they understand the science surrounding the problem.”
Dr. Kubic told me that when he started in medicine more than 40 years ago, he would see three or four asthmatic children a year. “Today, many doctors are seeing that many in a week. Asthma medication is the most prescribed medicine in our school systems, now,” he says.
Kubic points to the growing body of research known as epigenetics. Epigenetics studies the effects of chemicals on DNA. “There is growing evidence that certain pollutants can turn on, or turn off, certain genes in our DNA,” Kubic says. The science suggests that if the switch is thrown on some of those genes, the body stops producing some proteins that protect us from diseases like asthma. Worse, the blown breaker can be passed on from one generation to the next without altering the basic DNA.
Kubic says supporters of the TRAIN Act aren’t seeing the full economic picture. “They are looking for the immediate benefit, but not looking at long-term costs,” he says. “Many of the children suffering from asthma, as one example, live in areas of high pollution, and they don’t have the means to get out. They are the most costly group of asthmatics to treat, for a variety of reasons, including poverty and access to healthcare. People who don’t have insurance can’t pay for the treatment of their children, so ultimately the taxpayer will bear the cost.”
Studies have shown, for instance, in the most polluted boroughs of New York City, about 25 percent of the children are asthmatic. Epidemiologic studies show children’s asthma cases growing each year.
Kubic remembers a recent televised GOP presidential candidates’ debate that gave him pause. Ron Paul was asked what he would do in the case of a 30-year-old man who had chosen to be uninsured and faced a life-threatening medical emergency. Paul was asked who should pay for the young man’s care. “Before the candidate could respond,” says Kubic, “I heard people in the audience say, ‘Let him die.'”
The TRAIN Act will likely fail in the Senate, but if it makes it through to President Obama, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has recommended he veto the bill. OMB has crunched the numbers and found that the benefits of the regulation, like the Clean Air Act itself, far outweigh the immediate savings suggested by the authors of the bill.
But the TRAIN Act is, if nothing else, predictive of things to come from Congress, and leads one to ask again the question: Is the vote for loosening regulation of polluters a vote against children’s health?
After taking into account all the facts, it would seem the answer is, regrettably, yes.