Keeping Our Air and Water Clean Saves Money; GOP Plan to Handcuff the EPA Is Costly

Last week, House Republicans passed a budget that would handcuff the Environmental Protection Agency and prevent it from reducing pollution that threatens our health. Not only would this take us back into darker, dirtier days, it will also cost America money.

Pumping mercury, soot, and arsenic into the air or letting raw sewage flow into our waterways comes with an enormous price tag. The tab includes billions of dollars in medical bills, hospitalizations, lost productivity, missed school days, and premature death.

If House Republicans were serious about reducing the deficit, they would not block the EPA from doing its job. They would let the agency continue its successful efforts to clean up our air, make our water safer to drink, and save us all money now when we need it most.

There is a simple principle at stake here: it is easier and cheaper to keep things clean than it is to make a mess and clean it up later. This is a lesson BP has learned the hard way over the past year. But it’s one city and state governments have known for awhile.

Here in New York City, for instance, the city committed to spending more than $1 billion to protect the watershed that supplies our clean drinking water instead of letting the watershed become polluted and then having to spend up to $10 billion on filtration systems to make it clean again.

Even when our natural resources have already been polluted, it costs local economies more to keep them dirty than it does to clean them up.

A Southern California study concluded that fecal contamination at beaches in Los Angeles and Orange County caused as many as 1.4 million cases of gastrointestinal illness annually, with a public health cost of up to $50 million each year. That’s a high price to pay for swimming in sewage. On the other hand, a 2007 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that if the city of Long Beach alone improved water quality at its beaches it would generate $8.8 million in economic benefits.

Cleaning up our air also yields great savings. For every air pollution standard, the EPA monetizes benefits that come from preventing bad things from happening, such as heart attacks avoided, ER visits avoided, lost work days avoided, and deaths avoided.

The benefits are enormous. According to the EPA, for every $1 dollar we have spent on reducing pollution through the Clean Air Act, we have gained more than $40 in benefits.

Take the acid rain program. The same pollutants that cause acid rain also exacerbate respiratory illnesses and cardiac disease. President George H.W. Bush created the acid rain program as part of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990—something he cited as one of his most important accomplishments. Since then, the program has generated $80 billion in health benefits every year. It also saves nearly 19,000 lives annually. Meanwhile the cost of reducing acid rain pollution was about 80 percent lower than the government predicted, according to an MIT study.

Keeping our loved ones healthy, not having to bring our children to the ER for asthma attacks, not having to pay more medical bills—this is why Americans support government safeguards.

According to a new poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for NRDC and released on Wednesday, the majority of American voters oppose House budget measures that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from updating clean air safeguards.

Nearly six out of 10 Americans – including 55 percent of Independents and 48 percent of Republicans – don’t approve of the House vote to “block the EPA from limiting carbon dioxide pollution.” Indeed, more than 68 percent – including 54 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Independents -- said the EPA should move ahead to “reduce carbon pollution without delay.”

Somewhere in the frenzy of all their anti-government rhetoric, House Republicans fell out of step with what Americans want.

I realize our nation must confront the deficit. But calls to shackle the EPA are theater, not real solutions. If it were, GOP lawmakers would have considered ending the giant subsidies for oil companies—something most of them staunchly refused to do.

No, this budget is about using the deficit as a pretext to handcuff the government. Weakening the EPA will actually cost America money—our public health is the foundation of our economic health.

Preserving the agency’s programs would not only deliver savings but also give Americans what they want: an agency that can protect their health.