The Senate soon will take up a bill that represents an irresponsible attack on Americans’ right to clean, healthy air. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is expected to call for a vote in the next week on a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution (S.J. 37, pdf) to eliminate EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants. These standards are projected to avoid up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks every year. Senator Inhofe’s action is the legislative equivalent of an atomic bomb, destroying these health standards with a radioactive spillover that would prevent EPA from adopting meaningful replacement standards to protect Americans from mercury and some 80 other toxic air pollutants that cause cancer and other health hazards.
In light of this reckless action, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the rhetoric and arguments wielded by critics are just as sharp and reckless. Many of these statements by congressional and industry naysayers reveal a startling degree of disdain for life-saving limits on air pollution and health standards to protect Americans, including vulnerable children and the unborn.
So in their own words, here are some of the more outlandish statements from congressional opponents and industry lobbyists attacking the mercury and air toxics standards and their health benefits:
- In response to concerns by pro-life evangelical Christians that part of being pro-life means protecting the unborn from the brain and nerve damage caused by neurotoxic mercury pollution, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) retorted that “[t]he life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself.”
- The conservative Cornwall Alliance defended its opposition to these clean air standards and other health safeguards by declaring that “most environmental causes promoted as pro-life involve little threat to human life itself, and no intent to kill anyone.”
- The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), has weighed in on the mercury and air toxics standards that annually will prevent [pdf] up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks. Speaker Boehner’s contribution to the debate? Calling these health standards “red tape.”
- Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), while noting helpfully that he was not a “medical doctor,” nonetheless asserted at a congressional hearing that there was no “medical negative” to mercury and soot pollution. He went on to claim that EPA’s numbers on premature deaths that the mercury and air toxics standards helped avoid were “pulled out of the thin air.” Unsurprisingly, real doctors at the American Lung Association, American Public Health Association and American Academy of Pediatrics wrote Barton expressing that they “were shocked at such statements.” [pdf]. These actual doctors responded to Barton’s outrageous statements as “professionals that treat patients who are impacted by lung, cardiovascular and neurological impairments” linked to air pollution. These doctors “see in the patients we treat what  the scientific literature lets us know to expect: that air pollution makes people sick and cuts lives short.”
- The House subcommittee on Energy and the Environment held a hearing where the Republican majority chose as its only medical witness the Chief Toxicologist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Downplaying the well-understood health impacts of soot pollution, this Texas official took the tack of arguing [pdf] that “[s]ome studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.” This flies in the face of long-established scientific understanding and a multitude of peer-review studies. (See here [pdf] and the attachment identifying dozens of these studies.)
- Faced with health standards that will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks, Jeff Holmstead, utility industry lobbyist and former Bush administration political appointee that headed EPA's air office, declared that the mercury and air toxics standards “deliver few real benefits.” He has denied further that reducing power plants’ hazardous air pollution, including mercury, “actually does anything to protect public health” (49:39). As an EPA official testifying before Congress in 2005, however, Mr. Holmstead contradicted these claims by recognizing that reducing harmful soot pollution from power plants would avoid thousands of premature deaths among other “significant health benefits.”
- Senator Inhofe took up this industry line of argument in a Senate hearing in which he said that “[t]his rule isn't about public health,” and “[i]f it were, EPA wouldn't have to trick the public by relying on phony co-benefits.” Senator Inhofe also has called the health standards' enormous benefits “negligible” and “not needed to protect public health.”
- Last but certainly not least, industry lobbyists attacking [pdf] the mercury and air toxic standards in congressional hearings actually have resorted to resurrecting the “senior death discount” that even the Bush administration abandoned following a public outcry. The senior death discount reflects the perverse view that the lives of seniors should be discounted because they supposedly enjoy a lower quality of life than younger Americans; so because their lives are worth less, the argument goes, government agencies like EPA should assign lower monetized values to saving their lives. This is an especially sick way of attempting to diminish the importance of clean air standards that avoid so many premature deaths among the elderly. And it's very revealing that some critics have resorted to this line of argument in an attempt to tear down air toxics standards for power plants.
The notable reality about these quotes is that they are hardly outlier views among critics of EPA's mercury and air toxics standards. The figures delivering these quotes include some of the most senior members of Congress, from the Speaker of the House to prominent conservatives on the key environmental committees in the House and Senate. And the views expressed in these objectionable quotes represent core arguments concocted by political and industry critics opposed to these health standards.
It is a sad statement on American politics today that this level of intellectual dishonesty and immorality is directed at standards that will do so much good for so many Americans. About a right as basic as clean, healthy air and a health case as compelling as protecting children and the unborn from brain poisons.
The mercury and air toxics standards will survive this latest congressional ideological spasm and the Congressional Review Act attack will fail. And the reckless rhetoric underlying the dirty campaign will waft into the past like so much toxic dust in the wind.
What will remain and endure are generationally significant safeguards against toxic air pollution and the legal commitment guaranteeing Americans benefit from national limits on the hazardous mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic air pollution that power plants emit every day.