Happy (Flat) Earth Day

Man is but a castaway

   On this planet’s shore.

He survives from day to day.

   Can he ask for more?

Vast and intricate the store

   Of his printed words.

Short and simple is the lore

   Of the beasts and birds.


                                Clarence Day


I take this poem, in part, as a plea for man and woman to be more respectful, and more caring to other living creatures on the planet – including preserving habitat, not gratuitously killing them, etc.  So, that’s my little contribution to the blogosphere for Earth Day.

As probably anyone checking out NRDC’s Switchboard already knows, today is (or was) Earth Day, which in part is supposed to recall and evoke the date of Senator Gaylord Nelson’s first environmental teach-in, but also more generally the period in 1970 when the public came together to express sufficient concern (and even outrage) about the degradation of our planet to spark the revolution of modern environmental law in the United States, including enactment of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act.

Just over 40 years later, it seems like we might be better off recognizing this as Flat Earth Day, since a good number of political “leaders” in Washington, DC, and at least some of the states, are so focused (or, to put it bluntly, hell-bent) on weakening our existing environmental laws, and blocking efforts to improve protections for public health or the environment.

The stories spilling out of Washington DC and some of the state capitals are, if you care at all about science and health, deeply disturbing.   Whether due to personal belief, political (mis) calculation, or both, many politicians – of both parties – are ignoring science, and putting their desire to please the worst industrial polluters ahead of protecting the public.

Just a few examples (with an assist from some of my NRDC colleagues):

The Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have announced their plans to block EPA’s proposed new Clean Air standards to protect the public from mercury and other toxic chemicals currently billowing out of power plants, cement kilns and industrial boilers.  In part, these “leaders” question the science about the dangers of mercury, lead and other toxic chemicals.  My colleague John Walke summarized the important annual public health benefits of these proposed safeguards in recent testimony as follows:

  • 26,000 premature deaths;
  • 16,500 non-fatal heart attacks;
  • 178,000 asthma attacks;
  • 12,000 cases of acute or chronic bronchitis;
  • 330,000 cases of upper or lower respiratory symptoms;
  • 18,000 hospital admissions and emergency room visits;
  • 1,290,000 days when people must miss work or school; and
  • 7,750,000 days when people must restrict their activities.

The Republican response: “sorry, we’re not interested.”    Pretty flat earth.

Meanwhile, on the water front (get it?),as my colleague Jon Devine has chronicled here, here, and here, since January, members of Congress (tea party members and otherwise) have introduced and/or voted for a slew of bad bills and amendments to unrelated budget bills designed to weaken just about every conceivable provision of the Clean Water Act.  This includes of course, overturning EPA actions to control the practice of Mountaintop Removal mining (talk about flat earth!).

And, as far as taking action to protect the public, or even just inform them about potential risks from toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products we have in our homes – politicians and policy-makers remain in the thrall of the chemical industry, despite the public’s serious, and justified, concern about the lack of regulation, or information available about the safety of chemicals.

At the state level, as I have chronicled here and here, Maine’s new Governor Paul LePage has taken flat earth mentality to new heights (or depths), substituting chemical industry talking points for independent or educated thinking about science.  (To be fair, I don’t think the industry, or his environmental policy staff – comprised of chemical industry lobbyists on temporary leave -- wrote him the talking point about the worst effect of exposure to the hormone disrupting chemical bisphenol A being that women would grow little beards.  I think he was flying solo on that one).

Just to be clear, this flat earth thing: ignoring clear science about the harms to health caused by pollution and toxic chemicals, zealously pursuing an agenda to weaken protections already adopted, deferring to and/or parroting industry arguments (few of which are new or credible) as justification for overturning or blocking improved protections, none of that is confined to one particular political party.

The silver lining is, at the state level at least, opposition to flat earth thinking can also be bi-partisan (as evidenced by the Maine legislature’s overwhelming rejection (180 to 3!) of the campaign by the Governor and the chemical industry to block the phase out of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and reusable water bottles.

The problem isn’t just with Congress.  The White House is currently sitting on two modest rules proposed by EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act, that would increase the information available to the public (and EPA) about the production, use, exposure and potential risks of toxic chemicals.  One of these efforts – to publish a list of four “chemicals of concern” (out of 84,000 unregulated chemicals available for use in commerce) has been languishing for nearly a year – and that is just to make a formal proposal, not to finalize it.  The other rule, to require the chemical industry to provide basic information about chemicals more frequently, and report it electronically, is largely opposed by much of the chemical industry and its cousin the oil industry (some elements just call for delaying the requirements – for five to 15 years).   The industry is making the same unfounded and inflated arguments it has been making about every single effort to  increase health protection or expand public right to know since the original Earth Day – “massive burden” “job-killing” “will create chaos” etc. Unfortunately, they seem to be sufficient to persuade the Obama Administration. Information kills jobs. That is so flat earth.

Earth Day was a teach-in for the people.  Now the people need to teach the politicians. Health and environmental protection matter.  Mercury and lead are dangerous, and they shouldn’t be in the air we breathe.  Water pollution – whether it is untreated sewage or toxic discharges -- is terrible for both public health and the environment.  And thousands of chemicals never proven to be safe (and some of which we already know are not safe) should not be used in products we have in our homes, schools and workplaces .

The American people can turn this around, and break the grip the industrial polluters have on our political system.  We have to do it, or every year, on April 22nd, we’ll be stuck, “celebrating” Earth Day, but living with a political system dominated by Flat Earth thinkers.  And paying the price with our health.