Originally posted by Alex Yerkey on Clean Water Action’s website.
If it Ain’t Broke… U.S. House Tackles Clean Air, Water & Everybody Loses
by Alex Yerkey
I watched the U.S. House of Representatives “hard at work” until (far too) late into the early morning last Saturday. They were debating on the Continuing Budget Resolution. As amendment after amendment was proposed that would roll back environmental protections and endanger public health, I was struck by a single recurring thought: that the EPA may be a victim of its own successes.
That may sound a little crazy, but stick with me for a second. The EPA would not be such a target for the House Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) if these Representatives – and, perhaps more importantly, their constituents – regarded air and water pollution or environmental degradation as grave threats to their health or way of life. I think that a large part of the reason we don’t feel these threats so intensely is that the EPA has been so effective in confronting exactly these threats over the last four decades.
Could even the staunchest conservative in Congress get away with defunding the EPA if the evening news featured regular stories on how acid rain threatened to decimate urban buildings and rural crops alike – as was once the case? Fortunately, EPA -ironically, through a cap-and-trade program created under the Clean Air Act – brought acid rain pollution under control in the 1990s. Many Americans no longer regard acid rain or similar pollution problems as serious environmental or public health threats.
When the idea of cutting EPA’s funding comes up, the response you often hear goes something like this: “I’m not wild about it, but times are hard, and it’s not like there’s some imminent environmental disaster right around the corner.”
But even a cursory look at events of the past year shows how dangerously mistaken this perspective actually is. EPA has as big a role as ever to play in protecting us from grave environmental and public health risks: Gulf oil spill #1, Gulf oil spill #2, the Enbridge oil spill that fouled Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, and, also here in Michigan, the recent spill at a natural gas well just south of Traverse City. Fossil fuel extraction, refining, storage and combustion all carry serious ongoing risks. Longer term, fossil fuel use unchecked means greenhouse gas pollution that brings the biggest existential threat to our way of life in the 21st Century.
That’s the scientific reality. But sometimes it seems the only reality that matters is whatever public perception is able to gain the upper hand in today’s polarized and increasingly propagandistic media environment. Perception can have as much to do with people’s willingness to give their elected representatives a pass on the egregious misbehavior unfolding today as Congress “does its business.” Too many of us have been fooled into accepting the notion that the real wolf at the door is the three-headed monster of “runaway government spending,” a budget deficit “spiraling out of control,” and what everyone agrees are unacceptably low employment numbers. Once you buy into this perception, it can be hard to resist the push for deep cuts in anything that seems less than strictly necessary.
Without a grave and imminent threat to confront, EPA falls all too easily into the “stuff we like but simply can’t afford right now” category. The problem is, too many numbers are missing from this equation: the cost of health problems from water and air pollution; the good jobs created by clean energy companies; the huge economic benefits realized every day here in Michigan and around the country by people and businesses whose livelihoods rely on clean water, clean air and a safe, healthy environment.
Nothing seems to matter in the current debate except for those government expenditures that address immediate threats to the country. Which of those threats have been diminished today by EPA and environmental success stories like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act? Which of today’s imminent environmental and health threats simply don’t register in the public’s consciousness?
I sincerely hope the U.S. – both its government and its people – can talk ourselves off the current cut-happy ledge, before too much damage is done. It would be tragic if reduced enforcement and increased clean air and clean water violations by run-amok polluters – which would surely follow – are what it would take to wake people up and get things headed in the right direction again. Are we really ready for a return to the days when waste-choked rivers regularly burst into flames?
Decades of steady progress toward cleaner air and water did not happen through hope or good intentions or voluntary actions by for-profit corporations. Those efforts succeed at delivering environmental and health protection results because clean air and clean water were deemed to be public policy priorities and were funded as such.
EPA still has many dragons left to slay. Much of our water today still fails to meet quality standards for drinking, fishing, or bodily contact. Smog is a persistent problem, and if warming climate trends continue, it’s only going to get worse. Unregulated Black Carbon soot carries a cancer risk seven times that all other air pollutants combined and is also big factor making climate change worse. Environmental and health protection challenges like these may not yet be perceived broadly as “hair-on-fire,” “wolf-at-the-door” threats, but it is only a matter of time before their economic, environmental and social costs will be overwhelming.
Making deep cuts now at EPA and in the most successful clean water, clean air and health protection programs will make things worse even faster, and the future clean-up costs even greater.
Alex Yerkey is a Campaign Organizer with Clean Water Action, based in Ann Arbor Michigan.