Risking The Lives Of Americans At Home

President Bush is trying to make us sick. What other conclusion can we reach regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent relaxation of the clean air rule known as New Source Review? The revised regulation now makes it easier, and cheaper, for hundreds of old coal-fired power plants to upgrade without first installing previously required equipment to limit pollution.

There’s been a great deal of buzz over the new rule from the usual players on both sides of the pollution debate. The Midwestern power plants lobbied long and hard for the new rules to exempt them from antipollution requirements–something which they regarded as detrimental to their bottom line. Environmental and public health groups that fought for the Clean Air Act’s passage in 1970 and its enforcement ever since are predictably beside themselves with frustration–seeing three decades of work take a backseat to Big Business once again within a matter of days.

With all the talk of “rules” and “emissions” and “equipment” it’s easy to get lost in the abstract rhetoric of the Bush Administration’s latest environmental debacle. It’s easy to lose sight of the revised rule’s very real significance for the living, breathing, and dying residents of our very real New Jersey towns and cities.

A 2000 Clean Air Task Force study on the health effects of air pollution from power plants found that fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants is directly responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 people each year. Moreover, the death toll from power plants exceeds total deaths from other causes which have been regarded as major public health and policy concerns in this country, including homicides and drunk driving deaths.

So what does all of the dangerous Midwestern pollution mean for New Jersey? Considering that prevailing winds blow the polluted air hundreds of miles east into our backyards, it means quite a lot. New Jersey is situated between the first and third most power plant-polluted cities in the U.S.–New York and Philadelphia, respectively. Every year, an estimated 1,100 New Jerseyans die from cancer caused by power plant pollution and our state residents suffer an estimated 22,000 asthma attacks. The total number of New Jersey children living with asthma will soon exceed 100,000. New Source Review gave us a good shot at eventually improving these troubling rates. The new changes, originally proposed by our own former Governor and recently departed E.P.A. Director Christine Todd Whitman, have now turned a good shot into a very long shot. In fact, the new rules will lead to even more polluted air as industrial plants are given the green light to increase their production capacity free from antipollution protections.

We’ve long known that air pollution leads to asthma attacks, emergency room visits and hospital stays, and increases the risk of death. New research has linked air pollution to lung cancer, birth defects, heart attacks, strokes, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The evidence of the harms caused by power plant pollution is scientific and it is very real. Yet the federal government’s General Accounting Office found that the EPA relied on mere “anecdotes” in its decision to relax the rule originally intended to protect the public from the harmful effects of industrial air pollution. It is extremely irresponsible for our federal government to risk the lives of millions of Americans based on anecdotal evidence. It is downright reckless if campaign contributions are the impetus for this risk.

The pricelessness of human life aside, the relaxed regulation is going to cost New Jersey residents financially. Respiratory illnesses and asthma attacks mean more doctor visits, more hospital admissions, more out-of-pocket health care and prescription drug expenses, more lost workdays for New Jersey workers, and decreased productivity for New Jersey companies. The Clean Air Task Force study found that New Jersey alone loses nearly 200,000 work days per year due to illness from power plant pollution. Wages lost at a rate of $100 per day per worker would reach a whopping $20 million per year at this level, not including the tens of millions of dollars likely lost in health care expenses. In a state which has not been immune to the effects of a stagnant national economy, President Bush has clearly dealt working families in New Jersey yet another expensive blow.

Despite the lack of data and scientific evidence to justify the new rule, despite the overwhelming public health risks and associated costs, despite repeated pleas from Governors, state legislators like myself (I sponsored a State Senate resolution introduced last December which denounces the New Source Review rule changes), environmental officials, and members of Congress, the Bush Administration has once again ignored the best interests of the environment and the public health and acted instead in the interests of an industry which, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, includes some of the President’s biggest campaign donors.

While attorneys general from a number of states, including New Jersey, once again file suit to protect the public from the health consequences of our President’s choices, we cannot let those responsible once again escape the consequences of these choices. While continuing to enjoy political favor for his “successes” abroad, President Bush continues to escape real public criticism for risking the lives of Americans at home. This is not an abstract matter for scientists and politicians to resolve outside the court of public opinion. This is a very real issue directly affecting each of our lives. Next year, you might notice many more kids puffing on inhalators at soccer games or more adults missing work with respiratory illnesses. And we can all thank President Bush for the dirty air.

State Senator John H. Adler represents the 6th District, which includes parts of Camden County. The senator is Democratic Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a member of the Senate Environment Committee.