The Congressional assault on the Clean Air Act

By Mary Peveto of Portland, Oregon. Mary is the President and Co-Founder of Neighbors for Clean Air.

We are hearing a lot these days about the Tea Party led Republican assault on the EPA, what scientist and former White House senior policy advisor Jeff Schweitzer called in a blog post today: “an ideological attack with no foundation in fact, a political temper tantrum.” Most recognize this for what it is: an old and opportunistic Republican pro-business agenda capitalizing on current anti-government rhetoric stirred up by Tea Party activists. Schweitzer goes on:

“[H]istory has shown clearly enough that environmental regulations do not cost a net loss of jobs; and that the lack of such regulations leads to unrecoverable losses, costly clean ups and irreversible health consequences.”

Based on that ideology at play, we would expect that our Oregon Democratic delegation is holding strong and fast against a radical agenda to dismantle the EPA and specifically Clean Air Act rules designed to protect public health.

Unfortunately last week’s roll call in the U.S. House of Representatives when it passed H.R. 2250 (the aptly named EPA Regulatory Relief Act) gives a dismal picture of where Oregon Congressmen (and yes, they are all men) stand in defending our children’s health against polluters. A bill that will delay and dramatically weaken safeguards regulating the combustion of various materials in industrial boilers passed with a dramatic GOP majority, in fact 97% of Republicans, or 234, voted yes, joined by only 41 Democrats, including Oregon Dems Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader. Earl Blumenauer stuck to his convictions, which he eloquently summed up in a statement on the floor:

“The losers are hundreds of thousands of people (who) will die, get illness from cancer, asthma, lost school days, millions of lost work days, the lost quality of life that is documented beyond belief. This is real, and these people lose.”

U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said at a conference last week after the vote that efforts to limit her powers are “unprecedented,” and that the current push in the U.S. House to block pollution control requirements would result in “gutting the heart of the Clean Air Act”. She also said that U.S. EPA regulations provide health benefits “that are big, and it’s not theoretical, although you wouldn’t hear that from some of the rhetoric in this town.”

This is but the latest in a series of aggressive attacks by polluters – and the elected who support them - on the Clean Air Act and the federal agency charged with implementing it, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And for those of us who breathe in Oregon all eyes turn now to the Senate, where a Democratic majority should ensure some pushback to regain perspective on a more balanced approach to the false choice of economic growth or environmental protection.

Wyden Aims to Delay and Dodge Health-Protective Incineration Rules

Unfortunately, Senator Wyden is standing against public sentiment and is instead championing legislation (S. 1392, the Senate counterpart to H.R. 2250) aimed at delaying compliance with boiler air quality rules. Senator Wyden’s bill, however, is about much more than just delay, as it fundamentally alters how the MACT –which stands for Maximum Achievable Control Technology - standards are promulgated. By rejecting the common-sense objective of establishing the standard on the best performing sources, and instead re-writing regulations based on what is achievable by the worst performing sources, Senator Wyden is making EPA choose a regulatory response that is the “least burdensome,” taking into consideration solely the cost to polluters, not to his loyal constituents’ health.

This anti-health bill also seeks to broadly expand upon a common sense definition of “biomass,” lumping in an industry wish list of nasty substances to be burned, including landfill sludge, industrial process wastewater, chemically-treated wood, and construction and demolition debris. Wyden’s bill facilitates the combustion of these materials in widely diffuse sources, insuring that the sources are categorized as “boilers” rather than placed under the more protective category of “incinerators.”

When Senator Wyden appeared on OPB’s Think Out Loud this past summer, he was asked specifically why he would support a dangerous bill that would delay important Clean Air Act health standards for industrial boiler emissions:

“How can Senator Wyden justify to the people of Oregon his co-sponsoring of Senate bill 1392, which would except industrial boilers from new EPA safeguards? Some of these boilers would continue to be allowed to burn old tires and other toxic materials. Why would he give dirty industry a break when his constituents are having trouble breathing?”

Why Indeed, Senator Wyden? According to an Oregon Health Authority report entitled “The Burden of Asthma in Oregon: 2010,” the state currently has 300,000 adults and 83,000 children living with asthma, putting our adult asthma rate at 10.2% and among the top five states in the US. This is also seen as an increasing trend, as the rate in 1999 was 8.5%.

In his response, those supporters who have long held Wyden as a champion of public health heard nothing of his historical conviction. Wyden said eight times in the 2.5 minutes that “EPA needs to get it right” with respect to boilers. Agreed, except he failed to mention that “getting it right” should mean making sure that Oregon children should be protected from harmful emissions from some of the dirtiest industrial facilities. For Wyden, “getting it right” means protecting industry, as it is far cheaper to burn waste in facilities that can conveniently skip the whole pollution control and monitor part.

Giving Polluters Exactly What They Want

Because S. 1392 reaches far beyond the confines of an emerging class of high-tech biomass facilities, it would give the worst polluters exactly what they have been seeking for decades: a free pass to burn specific industrial wastes without controlling, monitoring, or reporting the pollution that results. This will strongly encourage industry to burn its waste in facilities that simply are not safe, turning sensible and responsible waste disposal requirements on their head.

Only in Wyden’s dictionary does “biomass,” -- what he refers to as a “clean energy source and a renewable source” -- include old tires, creosote-soaked wood and plastics. While industry gets what it wants, by the EPA “getting it right,” the Oregon public will get more premature death, more respiratory illness and higher medical bills.

According to an EPA report to Congress last year, "the economic value of the public health and environmental benefits that Americans enjoy from the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 exceed their costs by a margin of four to one." The standards proposed by the U.S. EPA’s Boiler MACT rule(a direct result of the pro-health 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments) will save between 2,500 and 6,500 lives every year. Unfortunately, those lives will be lost every year that these health protections are sacrificed to industry profit.

The recent efforts by politicians to undermine our nation’s bedrock environmental laws are not finding much public sympathy. In fact, new polling shows that the public strongly supports the EPA in its efforts to protect public health, and that even 62 percent of Republican voters want Congress to let the EPA do its job.

A Tip: How to Actually “Get It Right”

If Wyden and his colleagues (like Senator Merkley) are sincere in “getting it right,” there is just one clear choice: reject laws that protect industry at the expense of our children’s health. Joining industry’s sorry fight to keep air dirty because it’s cheaper is not an acceptable path. Oregonians’ health should not be a high-stakes bargaining chip.

Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew says it well:

"By taking away pollution control requirements for industrial boilers and incinerators, H.R. 2250 would literally kill and sicken thousands of Americans. And what is simply appalling is that the industry lobbyists who pushed for this bill and the members of Congress who voted for it know these facts.”

Senator Wyden and the polluters he is working so hard to protect may be able to sleep at night with this on their consciences, but I can’t.

Learn more at Neighbors for Clean Air.

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    Humorous Democracy in Action video about Wyden made the rounds this summer:

    What is the reason behind Wyden's recent anti-environmental efforts? Would his staff like to comment about why he is encouraging the combustion of tires, plastics and all sorts of other toxic things in industrial boilers?

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    Thanks for posting this. I'm very disappointed that Wyden is trading our air for boiler operators who want to burn toxic stuff. I guess I'm not shocked given his support of biomass, but this is beyond the pale when so many of our kids have asthma and there are more than enough Republicans to ruin our environment, without the D's piling on. This does not represent the desires of his constituents who value clean air. keep up the good work, Neighbors for Clean Air. Clearly we need such watchdogs.

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    Indeed, Oregonians outside of the Portland Metro are just as disappointed in Senator Wyden as those writing from the big city. His position to jeopardize the health of children is shocking. In some areas of Oregon, Lane County for example, data on school children show asthma rates as high as 14%. Senator Wyden, why would you turn a blind eye to science, show a stone cold heart to public health, and turn your back on the principles on which the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Justice Executive Order were founded? The public deserves much better.

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    What I would like to know is who is lobbying Wyden on this? His position seems so contrary to his usually supportive role. What is going on? Thanks for taking the time to dig into this!

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      "Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff until January 2010, lobbied Wyden and other members of Congress on the issue this year on behalf of the National Association of Forest Owners," according to the Oregonian article

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    Mary, I don't understand much about this issue, but I do know this much:

    You've left out the worst offender in the Oregon congressional delegation when it comes to environmental matters.

    Congressman Greg Walden has a truly dismal record. According to the national League of Conservation Voters 2010 scorecard, every Democratic member of the delegation scored above 80% - while Greg Walden had a 10% pro-environment voting record. (I'm guessing that was an accident!)

    And even more to the point, you're complaining about the "Tea Party led Republican assault on the EPA".

    Greg Walden is in the House leadership! This is a guy who can actually do something about all of this in the House.

    I get that it's easy to be disappointed in our friends when they don't vote your way. But let's not let the real culprits off the hook in the process.

    Greg Walden has a terrible environmental voting record, and as a member of the House Republican leadership actually has responsibility for what hits the floor.

    [Full disclosure: My firm built the campaign websites for Wyden, Merkley, Blumenauer, DeFazio, and Schrader. I speak only for myself.]

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      Valid point, for sure. Greg Walden's loyalties are clear and his voting record transparent. Which is why Dems need to be as clear.

      We can't attempt to carve out protections for one niche of polluters at the expense of public health without doing irreparable harm. The category of Boilers and incinerators that is covered in the bill applies to a huge number of diverse industrial facilities, the bill as currently written is an exemption from the clean air act for all boilers, process heaters, and industrial incinerators. The stakes are big. We can't afford for Dems to be sending mixed messages about protecting public health from regulated sources of pollution. As Paul Kruger said earlier this week about the oil-industry's case for weaker environmental protection as a job creation strategy: " Is there a longer term economic case for less environmental protection? No. The important thing to understand is that pollution does real, measurable damage, especially to human health."

      So yes, I am more surprised and disappointed in the Democrats who I expect to understand this; not Greg Walden.

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        I understand surprise and disappointment.

        But let's not let Greg Walden off the hook.

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          Of course Walden is wrong, but that is kind of the point. This unprecedented effort to undo environmental regulation is orchestrated by a radical Republican agenda in the House, so Dems have no place jumping on board. As Lisa Jackson said in an op-ed today: "Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws. They have picked up the pace recently — just last week they voted to stop the EPA's efforts to limit mercury and other hazardous pollutants from cement plants, boilers and incinerators — and it appears their campaign will continue for the foreseeable future."

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          Nor should we let Wyden off the hook or change the topic to Walden.

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      Kari, as an unabashed sponsor of the Senate bill, Wyden is also a "real culprit." Mary should have mentioned Walden, for sure, but now the action's in the Senate and there Oregonians are not well represented by one of our senators, and he's a senator with seniority.

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    Read more about the bill in The New York Times, which includes Wyden's take on it.

    I'd recommend those reviewing this issue to avoid blurring the distinction between voting the wrong way and sponsoring and championing a bill. My understanding is Wyden, Collins, and Landrieu are the lead sponsors of the Senate version of this bill.

    But yes, we all agree Walden's bad on the environment!

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    A newly minted deal with a Swiss firm with ties to Russia will triple the amount of coal coming from Bull Mountain near Roundup, Montana. In Hood River, Walden's home town, The Sierra Club is using the coal trains which will soon be coming down the Gorge as an organizing effort.

    I agree with anyone who recognizes what a threat Walden is to Oregon and America. His father was a John Birch follower and Greg is too. Remember that it was the Koch brothers father who was a founder of the Birch Society. Fred Koch.

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    This is a huge betrayal of Oregonians...particularly Portlanders whose air quality ranks as some of the poorest in the country according to certain EPA measurements. We are already suffering a great burden of air pollution in this area of the country and now our Dem senators let us down so profoundly. Except Earl of course. Thanks Earl.

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    Yes, Earl is standing out again.

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    As a business owner, I know for a fact that we should be investing in job creation in America. It's the right thing to do. But it is critical that we invest in the right jobs, the jobs of the future, jobs that spur the economy now AND in the long term. Jobs that spur the economy briefly but cause irreparable harm to our health and the planet are way too expensive to justify. Besides the human cost, they require epic resources for clean up and the health costs and the cost of lost labor fall back upon society. Wyden is obviously way off base on this one. It's a giveaway to dirty industry lobbyists (one of whom is his former chief of staff if I'm not mistaken). We should not be writing laws that protect old dirty industry under the guise of promoting new clean alternatives.

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    It is shameful that Oregon Democrats have joined Tea Party Republicans in attempting to dismantle Clean Air Act protections. The Clean Air Act is quite possibly the most important public health protection law in this country, and saves thousands of lives each year. It's no surprise that Republicans are out to handicap the Clean Air Act however they can, but much more disappointing that Oregon Democrats are siding with them. I would hope we could expect more from Oregon's delegation.

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