The politics of public health

by Judith Lewis Mernit

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.

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