Defending the Clean Air Act from Congress

Nick Engelfried

If enforced, a new mercury rule could prevent thousands of preventable illnesses. Yet it is one of those regulations conservatives are trying to block.

I can think of few things more disgusting than using an economic recession brought on by corporate speculation as an excuse to deregulate corporations even further, while slashing support for agencies and institutions that protect consumers. Yet that’s what the national GOP seems bent on doing, with Republicans in Congress attempting to defund or eliminate everything from National Public Radio to clean air regulations.

One of the most important but least-publicized battles in this month’s federal budget fight was the question of whether the US Environmental Protection Agency should be allowed to enforce the Clean Air Act. In this case conservatives weren’t content to merely propose massive cutbacks in the agency’s budget: they actually wanted to use the budget as a chance to alter the law and prevent the EPA moving forward on protections for clean air. Four rider amendments introduced during the budget debate would all have delayed, weakened, or eliminated enforcement of clean air rules that protect public health.

Fortunately all four “dirty air” amendments were defeated, at least for now. In the two weeks before a budget agreement was reached, voters sent over 150,000 emails to members of Congress, asking them to defend clean air laws. The EPA got by with a 16% budget reduction (still bad, but a far cry from draconian cuts some Republicans had proposed), and no serious restrictions on the Clean Air Act. Oregon’s own Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley helped ensure that horrendous riders passed by the House of Representatives never made it through the Senate.

Fast forward to last Wednesday in Eugene where I met with students at the University of Oregon, who visited Wyden and Merkley’s offices and delivered hundreds of petitions in favor of a strong federal rule on mercury pollution. The mercury standard is one of several pollution regulations the EPA is moving to implement after years of delay, and is mandated by amendments to the Clean Air Act passed by Congress in 1990. If enforced, the new rule could prevent thousands of preventable illnesses. Yet it is one of those regulations conservatives are trying to block.

The University of Oregon effort is a part of a much broader push to submit comments as part of an EPA comment period on a rule to limit mercury from power plants—including Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, the biggest source of mercury in the state. Students at UO and elsewhere across Oregon have long been active in the fight to eliminate pollution from the Boardman Plant. Now we need our Congressional delegation to continue fighting attacks on the Clean Air Act in Congress.

With help from both of Oregon’s US senators, we kept the Clean Air Act intact through the long debate over the federal budget. However the GOP already preparing further attacks. Oregon’s Congressional delegation needs to stand strong for clean air—and for them to do this, progressives must signal we are ready to fight for this issue. Last week in Eugene, I got to see how one group of students is making their contribution. What’s yours going to be?

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