06 Sep 2011

Smog Alert: Polluters Breathing Easier, Not People

photo credit: Kath Schomaker

“The interstate signs read ‘Smog Alert: Bundle your Errands’ and ‘Smog Alert: Fill up after 8 PM,'” Kath Schomaker, outreach coordinator for Gray is Green, told those gathered at the coffee shop in the Northside Neighborhood of Cincinnati on a warm Saturday morning in August. She was there to talk about the Clean Air Promise Campaign, a simple request to Congress “to protect America’s children and families from dangerous air pollution…and to support clean air policies and other protections that scientists and public health experts have recommended to the Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard our air quality.”

“It can’t get much clearer than that,” Kath explains. “Smog pollution is hurting people here in Cincinnati.” According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report, Cincinnati was ranked 16th “Most Polluted” metropolitan area in the nation for ozone pollution and 9th “Most Polluted” in the nation for year-round particle pollution.

Created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight to form airborne particles and ground-level ozone, smog contributes to a variety of ailments, including heart problems, asthma, and other lung disorders. It’s a big problem in cities with sunny, warm, dry climates and a large number of motor vehicles–which is why the highway signs were encouraging people to drive less and fill up in the evening when it was cooler and less gas would evaporate. But there are many other sources of smog-forming pollutants, including power plants, factories, and many consumer products, such as paints, hair spray, charcoal starter fluid, solvents, and even plastic popcorn packaging.

While at the coffee shop Kath was introduced to Dr. Richard Bozian, Professor Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who invited her to talk to the congregation of the First Unitarian Church near the university at the 10 AM service held the next day.

“I read to them a list of all the groups that were supporting the Clean Air Promise campaign” she said. “I know that seems a little silly, but people really sit up and take notice when they hear that along with over a dozen environmental groups, some of the most highly respected health organizations in the country, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and the National Association of City and County Health Officials, are all behind this effort.”

“Honestly, almost everyone who breathes gets it.” Kath describes the reaction she’s been getting from folks she’s been meeting on her road trip to Pennsylvania and Ohio. “Either they or someone they know have asthma or are suffering from some sort of heart or lung disorder that makes them especially vulnerable to pollution. They know what a high smog day feels like, what it costs to them, and why strong standards are important.”

Her experience is backed up by a recent poll conducted for the American Lung Association which found that 75 percent of voters support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to set stronger smog limits and 66 percent believe that EPA scientists–not politicians–should establish clean air standards.

Which is why so many Americans were stunned by President Obama’s “baffling cave on ozone standards” this past Friday. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke wrote in a Friday Switchboard blogpost:

“Today the Obama Administration made a decision that will endanger the health of tens of thousands of Americans. Its choice to delay stronger standards for smog lets polluters off the hook and leaves Americans with sicker family members and higher medical costs…

The stronger smog standards would have saved up to 4,300 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks every year. They would have made breathing easier for the 24 million Americans living with asthma. And they also would have created up to $37 billion in health benefits annually.

By failing to deliver these health and economic benefits to the American people, President Obama has come down on the side of polluters and those extreme forces who deny the value of government safeguards.

Those government safeguards are working, as authors of the most recent ALA’s State of the Air report explains: All metro areas in the list of the 25 cities most polluted by ozone showed improvement over the previous report as a result of having to meet clean air standards, and 15 of those cities experienced the best year yet.

“We owe our cleaner air to the Clean Air Act,” said Charles D. Connor, American Lung Association President and CEO. The State of the Air report provides clear “proof that cleaning up pollution results in healthier air to breathe. That’s why we cannot stop now. Half of our nation is still breathing dangerously polluted air. Everyone must be protected from air pollution.”

Strengthening the standards for smog isn’t just smart public health policy, it’s required by law. The Obama administration has been on the right side of the law and the science on other strong clean air protection–including the one limiting mercury pollution–which are now under attack in Congress.

So why is it yielding to industry pressure on this important standard? According to The New York Times, President Obama reasoned that to “significantly reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals ozone” now “would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.”

But just how much of this “burden on industry” is real? Considering that “the top 10 utilities had a combined $28.4 billion in profits and $7.5 billion in cash balances” in 2010, one might think they ought to be able to afford to embrace innovative pollution controls and protect their customers’ health. In fact, the CEOs of leading utilities, including PG&E, Exelon, and Constellation, suggest just that in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal called “We’re Okay with the EPA’s New Air-Quality Regulations”:

The electric sector has known that these rules were coming. Many companies, including ours, have already invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants…Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.

Indeed, the facts are on the side of strong regulations. As Frances Beinecke explains, clean air standards generated approximately $1.3 trillion in public health and environmental benefits in 2010 alone at a cost of $50 billion. The ratio of benefits to costs is more than 26 to 1.

And the facts also indicate that the pollution control sector is a job creator not a jobs killer. According to a study done by the Institute of Clean Air Companies, the environmental technology sector has generated more than 1.7 million American jobs as of 2008.

What about Ohio workers? Will they see job growth? According to the report, New Jobs-Cleaner Air: Employment Effects under Planned Changes to EPA’s Air Pollution Rules, over 77,000 jobs are expected in Ohio alone as a result of the two Clean Air rules that hopefully will be finalized by the EPA in 2011.

“Studies like this,” writes Steve Caminati, Spokesman Ohio Business Council for a Clean Economy, “highlight the economic development potential in transitioning to a clean energy economy. These rules under the Clean Air Act will help create significant job growth for the state.”

Kath shares the disappointment of so many in the administrations decision on ozone, but is undeterred. She’s working with citizens of Cincinnati to put together a Mayoral Proclamation of the Clean Air Promise for the Mayor to sign.

“What they are not hearing in Washington are the voices of ordinary people like us,” she says. “Cincinnati wants to be heard. They’ve drafted the Mayoral Proclamation and are considering a Clean Air Promise Day to get everyone–school kids, parents, community organizations, businesses–involved.”

“Honestly, every city and town should hold one,” Kath muses. “You know what would be great? If all those highway signs were to say: ‘Got Air? Take the Clean Air Promise.’ It’s ours to breathe not theirs to pollute.”

Wherever you live in the country, show your support for clean air for all:

  • Tell Congress to take the Clean Air Promise using this action page at NRDC’s Action Center, and get your friends and neighbors to do the same.
  • Follow the lead of cities like Cincinnati and put together a resolution or Mayoral Proclamation. You can find a good model here.
  • And see if your city or town won’t dedicate a day to clean air.

Finally let the President know how disappointed you are that he’s put corporate polluters over Americans’ health and rejected new standards for ozone smog. Click here to send an email to the White House.