GOP Leaders Resume the Worst Attack on Public Health Safeguards in History

This week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is firing the opening salvo in his fall campaign to dismantle public health safeguards and increase air pollution. He is holding a floor vote on the TRAIN Act to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating two life-saving standards.

This move will thwart job growth. One recent report determined that the pollution reductions targeted by the TRAIN Act will create nearly 1.5 million jobs over 5 years if implemented.

And yet Cantor is determined to block these safeguards and of after several others in the next few weeks.

Each one of the standards he is targeting would require polluters to take responsibility for their dirty emissions. As individuals, you and I can’t make sure the air is safe for our children and families to breathe. Only government standards can. They are the line of defense between our families and the toxins that cause asthma attacks, cancer, and premature death.

But to GOP leaders, these protections are an excuse to launch ideological attacks on government regulations. Making the air safe to breath, they claim, is hurting job growth—despite the fact that the Brookings Institution found that nearly 2.7 million Americans have jobs working in the clean economy.

GOP lawmakers would have us believe that the public health and environmental safeguards stemming from the Clean Air Act—a 40-year-old law signed by President Nixon—are thwarting economic growth. It’s not the unregulated market in mortgage debt, the U.S. trade deficit with China, or the shaky state of European banks that is freezing growth. It’s the EPA’s effort to reduce toxins from old power plants.

This approach may score a few points with the Tea Party. But pollution does not follow partisan lines; asthma does not favor one party over the other. All Americans suffer if our air is dirty. And our air will be dirtier if Cantor succeeds in his attacks on these two standards.

The first is the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which reduces the smog and soot pollution that drifts from power plants across state borders and endangers the health of downwind residents. The EPA estimates that starting in 2014, every year this standard will prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths, 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits, and 1.9 million days when people miss work or school.

The second is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard that would slash levels of mercury, lead, and other heavy metals from power plants fueled by coal and oil. These pollutants have been proven to cause neurological damage, cancer, and respiratory disease. Parents of small children routinely approach me with concerns about mercury exposure of their kids—they know this is real danger. But once the new standard is in place, it will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, according to the EPA.

And it will create up to 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

Both of these standards have enormous cost-benefit ratios. The EPA estimates that the annual health and environmental benefits of the mercury standard will range from $120 billion to $280 billion, while the costs will top out at about $800 million annually, combined with an estimated $1.6 billion per year in capital investments that power plants are already making as a result of a Bush-era rule.

Many utilities are prepared to meet these clean air standards. Joseph Dominguez of energy giant Exelon said, “The rules have been in the works for about a decade, and the electric utility industry is well-positioned to respond, with more than 60 percent of coal-fired power plants already equipped with pollution controls.”

Dominguez went on to say that the new standards provide “the regulatory certainty utilities need to make substantial capital investments in modernizing the nation’s electric system, which will create jobs.”

At a time when corporations have amassed what the Wall Street Journal called “record cash piles”— nearly $2 trillion—unleashing capital investments makes a lot more sense than keeping that money on the sidelines of the economy.

We can put Americans to work at the same time we make our air safe to breathe and we protect our children from dangerous toxins. Expanding the clean economy isn’t about scoring ideological points for one side or the other. It’s about helping the entire nation win.