In Defense of Clean Air

Last week my spouse
Don and I traveled to Washington D.C. with a couple dozen others to petition
our U.S. senators and reps to uphold the Clean Air Act.

I was astounded to
hear it wasn’t the Clean Power Plan, the Green Climate Fund, or the

Downtown Louisville–

from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet website 

Accords that we were defending, but the 1970 Clean
Air Act
, that bipartisan plan emerging from the smog of the ‘60s to make
air breathable again.

Until recently its
provisions were a given—no one wants to fill our lungs with health-compromising
particulates, right? But apparently, to hear the U.S. Congress on this, we do
indeed enjoy breathing crud. Some public servants, elected to represent us, seem
to think we citizens want to kill ourselves with ozone, bronchitis, heart
disease, asthma, and cancer. Another right—this time the right to breathe—appears
under attack.

According to a 2011
EPA study, the Clean Air Act as it stands will
prevent 230,000 premature American deaths by 2020
, and 17 million lost work
days. For a cost of $65 billion we can get $2 trillion in benefits—that is, $30
to every $1 spent.

But since attacks
on clean air are unpopular with citizens
, even
in 2017
, Congress isn’t going about this head-on so much as chipping away
at good legislation already achieved, piece by piece.

With the help of Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental
law firm that defends healthy communities, clean energy, and nature, seven from Indiana traveled to D.C. specifically to discuss with our legislative aides two unfavorable

S. 951, the so-called Regulatory
Accountability Act
, which is designed to unleash what Earthjustice calls “an
avalanche of bureaucratic hurdles and litigations by polluters,” crippling the
government’s ability to protect communities and the environment. Far from
making government leaner, it creates 53 new barriers to safeguards for food,
workplaces, and communities, including not only environmental pollutants but predatory
lending. It renders some rules non-reviewable by courts. It favors polluters
over scientific and public input, and allows industries to tie up new rules benefit
the public in court for years. It weakens the extent that government—even if it
wants to—can protect citizens from deep-pocket polluters, and it has already
been passed by the House.

HR. 806/S. 263, being considered in both houses, is the
so-called “Ozone
Standards Implementation Act
,” but it’s just the opposite of what its name
implies. According to Earthjustice and others, a better name is the “Smoggy
Skies Act
.” It proposes an eight-year delay of ozone standards that were
already passed in 2015. A mere 60 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone, or smog, causes
health-endangering risks not just of haze but of asthma, heart attacks, low
birth weight, and premature deaths. The new standard reduces the acceptable
level from 75 to 70 ppb (still too high but an improvement). More than 1/3 of
Americans—116.5 million people—live in locations with unsafe ozone levels, many
low-income families who cannot afford the health compromises, lost work days,
and daily distress of being unable to breathe. So delaying this ten years means
that much more health burden on more growing bodies.

After an extremely
helpful orientation by Earthjustice folks, our group spoke with aides in the
offices of Senators Joe Donnelly
(very receptive) and Todd Young (at
least spoke with us) as well as several House Republicans and Democrats. 

One Hoosier,
the Rev. Daryl Emowrey, a young Lutheran pastor serving in Angola, spoke to

All of us but Tara–
because she was meeting with the EPA!

every official about God’s breathing the breath of life
into the first human being, bringing the creature to life. Connecting God’s
life-giving breath to the life-sustaining air of our atmosphere, he pleaded
that our air not continue becoming a source of death instead.

Two Hoosiers, Akeeshea
Daniels and Tara Adams from East Chicago in Northwest Indiana—where lead contamination in the soil from a former smelting factory has stricken many children,
and industrial air pollution is among the country’s worst—gave heart-rending
testimony about watching their own children fall ill from asthma and other
respiratory diseases, and needing to use inhalers themselves.

Kathy Watson, an
Indianapolis environmental attorney who understands the ins and outs of this
legislation better than any of us, outlined the costs of both of
these bills to our state, as well as the local benefits of reducing ozone

Andrew Turba, a
Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light supporter from South Bend, told what
his own church has done to conserve energy, and the economic as well as
spiritual benefits this work has brought the congregation.

I talked about how
the seven months of treatment I just endured underscored the waste to health,
pocketbook, peace, and life that cancer poses. Air
pollution is a leading cause of cancer
, even compromising
the health of unborn babies
. My heart breaks, knowing what that purgatory
is like even in the most favorable of circumstances, over consigning young mothers
and children to the disease just to keep our air dirty. 

Don discussed a
toxic industry in Rockwood, Tennessee, where he was pastor, that was turning the
townspeople’s clothing and tennis shoes gray. They fought long and hard to get
the pollution controlled, and ultimately the industry had to buy out a whole
neighborhood. Through the battle, regulators repeatedly told them that
citizen protection was only as strong as the laws in place. 

So why we would
want to weaken what protects us?

If I were a
legislator, I would have been very moved to meet with citizens like
us. But were we effective? Aides meet all day long with lobbyists
advocating for their causes. Yet it’s amazing how often I’ve heard, “This bill is
not on our radar—thanks for bringing it to our attention.” I want to believe that
as broken as our system seems today, democracy still functions, and some politicians
are still responsive leaders.

It’s shocking that
the Clean Air Act, one of the foundational American achievements of my youth,
is up for grabs now. But I thank God that Earthjustice and other
environmental watchdogs are there to skillfully guide ordinary citizens to know
and claim our rights.

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