The politics of public health

  • Lee Judge and the Cartoonist Group.
 

On August 28, Utah Congressional candidate Mia Love took the podium at the Republican National Convention to riff on "personal responsibility" and the convention's "We Built It" refrain -- a distortion of President Obama's words about how public infrastructure helps people run their businesses. Love didn't mention Tropical Storm Isaac, which a few days before had killed 29 in her parents' native Haiti and was now a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast. The omission was awkward, for the storm was busily demonstrating Obama's point. As privately built levees gave out in nearby Plaquemines Parish, a brand-new $14 billion federal levee system saved New Orleans from a storm surge rivaling Katrina's.

The distance between rhetoric and reality yawned even wider the next day, when Vice Presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declared that, "The greatest of all responsibilities is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves." It was an odd statement from a Congressman who has fought every effort to protect individuals from industrial excess, including defending the rights of corporations to pollute as they please. It's true that Obama last year stalled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plans to reduce smog-forming emissions from factories and tail pipes. But only Republicans have written into their platform a direct attack on the authority of the EPA, and branded attempts to limit coal industry pollution as a "War on Coal."

In the first year after the 2010 midterms, Republicans in the House floated nearly 200 pieces of legislation seeking to undermine or block environmental regulations or scientific findings, including the EPA's new rules for mercury pollution from coal plants and the proper disposal of toxic coal ash. Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., even attempted to bar the agency from enforcing the Clean Water Act. The conservative view on pollution has also played out in states: Last year, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez began pushing to overturn the state's four-year-old "pit rule," which requires oil and gas producers to protect groundwater by lining the earthen pits where they dump waste.

None of those efforts has so far succeeded. Instead, the assault on environmental health has retreated to the courts. In mid-August, a federal appeals court led by Bush-appointee Brett Kavanaugh struck down an EPA rule to reduce interstate drift of harmful emissions from coal plants. The consequences are not abstract. "According to EPA statistics, every year that this rule is delayed there are literally thousands of avoidable deaths," says Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, "and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of illnesses."

Unfortunately, in politics, death seems to be the accepted consequence of protecting industry's bottom line. In July, Montana Congressman and Senate candidate Denny Rehberg slipped a rider into the Labor Department's budget bill, blocking legislation that would have required mine operators to upgrade technology that protects miners from black lung disease, diagnoses of which have doubled since 1997. Rehberg and his allies argue that they're only waiting for a federal report, due as this issue went to press, to substantiate the need for new equipment. But Rehberg, who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee regulating mine safety, has long shielded mining companies from federal authorities, blocking an EPA rule that would have required them to help pay for toxic waste cleanup. He is the fifth top recipient of campaign contributions from mining companies in 2012.

The sixth top recipient, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has said that the black lung regulation would cost industry too much. And that's always the argument: The cross-state pollution rule would have cost producers of coal-fired electricity $800 million a year starting in 2014, causing a rise in electricity rates anywhere from 0.1 percent to 14 percent. Obama's decision to ignore the advice of the EPA's staff scientists on ground-level ozone -- the most dangerous component of smog -- was based on his administration's determination that it would cost industry $90 billion annually and eliminate some jobs.

But does protecting public health really cost that much? "Those industry estimates almost inevitably turn out to be really overblown," says Deborah Shprentz, a consultant who reviews EPA clean air rules for the American Lung Association. "Once you set a standard, ingenuity kicks in and people figure out the most cost-effective way to meet it."

On the last day of August, Shprentz was busy finalizing comments on another EPA air rule, this time for soot. She hopes it will stand. "Air quality standards … define what's healthy and safe to breathe. The public has a right to know that kind of information."

Even Tea Partiers should be able to support the notion that we have the right to know, the right to stay healthy, and the right to keep our children safe. Those rights are in peril. In a landmark study by University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, ground-level ozone was conclusively shown to cause asthma in teenagers who play sports. And smog kills: The EPA estimates that tightening the ozone emissions standard could save 12,000 lives every year.

In the heartless math of premature deaths versus the economy, that may not seem like much. But as Keck School Professor Andrea Hricko points out, the same number of deaths by any other cause would be deemed a public health emergency. Imagine if 10,000 people dropped dead from West Nile Virus -- or even in the flooding that follows a hurricane. Katrina claimed an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 lives, mostly in New Orleans; Isaac, less than 10, and all outside of the city. That is the result, quite literally, of the strong protecting the weak. No individual can build that kind of levee; no one alone can clean up her own air space or protect his own water source from industrial polluters. We built it, indeed.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.