If You and I Have to Clean Up Our Garbage, Shouldn't the Polluters Who Trash Our Air?

Recently the EPA announced that cement companies will have to start cleaning up the high levels of mercury, soot, and smog coming from their plants. These new measures will save between 960 and 2,500 lives every year and prevent 1,500 heart attacks.

Yet like most EPA effort to protect public health using the Clean Air Act, this initiative drew industry ire. Cement companies decried the fact that they will now have to spend money to clean up their waste.

I suppose that dumping your garbage for free—in this case into people’s lungs—is cheaper than paying to have it carted away, but that doesn’t mean you get to do it, especially if your waste causes serious illness and death.

Paying to prevent deadly harm seems like a reasonable cost of doing business to me.

Think of the food industry. It costs money for agricultural industries to inspect the food they produce. But would you really want to change that? Would you be willing to have batches of beef contaminated with e-coli sold to supermarkets in order to protect the profit margins of agribusiness?

I know I wouldn’t, and I feel the same way about polluting cement plants, power plants, and all the other industries that the EPA is trying to clean up under the Clean Air Act.

It’s one thing if you decide to smoke cigarettes and inhale chemicals of your own violation. It’s another thing if the cement kiln down the road is pumping toxic pollutants into your body without asking your permission, paying your medical bills, or taking your child to the ER when she has an asthma attack.

It is extremely difficult for an individual to demand that a polluting neighbor clean up its act. But the EPA has the authority to do it. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act, it charged the EPA with those regulating pollutants which science deems are dangerous to our health. It has done it with lead in gasoline, acid rain, and countless other toxins, and it should be allowed to do it with global warming pollution as well.

Because time and again, the EPA has fulfilled its charge with life-saving results.

  • By making new diesel engines more than 90 percent cleaner, the EPA will prevent more than 21,000 premature deaths and $160 billion in health costs every year by 2030.
  • By phasing out the most dangerous ozone-depleting chemicals, the EPA will cut the American incidences of non-melanoma skin cancer by 295 million by 2075.
  • By launching the acid rain program, the EPA has cut soot and smog by levels that will reduce premature deaths by between 20,000 and 50,000 per year in 2010.

Keep in mind that these measures did not jeopardize the profits of the diesel engine manufactures, the chemical industry, or the electricity sector. Indeed, studies have shown that the costs of the EPA’s clean air programs are routinely less than predicted. The acid rain program, for instance, cost about 80 percent less than originally estimated, because technical innovation spurred by the new rules drove prices down. 

I anticipate that a similar process could unfold for the cement industry. Yes, they will have to pay to clean up their pollution, but it will likely be less than they imagine. And as result, the air will be cleaner and human lives will be saved. Sounds like a good investment to me.