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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

How the EPA is like FDR

Published: August 11, 2012


By Jeff Young

The Environmental Protection Agency pushes ahead with life-saving limits on soot. But only after they were pushed to act.

The EPA proposed tightening the limits on fine particle pollution from coal power plants, oil refineries and other industrial sources.

The microscopic soot lodges deep in the lungs and contributes to childhood asthma, strokes, heart attacks and tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in the US. The potential health benefits are tremendous. EPA estimates the avoided deaths, illnesses and lost work days would translate into as much as $5.9 billion a year. Those benefits swamp the anticipated costs of the extra pollution controls industry would have to install. The payback could be as high as $86 for each dollar invested.

Just how many lungs get protection and how many millions or billions of dollars are saved will depend on the level of protection that’s ultimately put in place. EPA will soon be taking public comments and begin developing a final rule. That process will be interesting to watch as it unfolds during an election season with chants of "job-killing EPA regulation" already filling the air.

It’s also interesting to take a brief look back at how EPA arrived at this point. Though EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson speaks of the win-win of clean air, her agency didn’t exactly rush to implement these public health protections. The first six words from EPA's Press release speak volumes about this: “In response to a court order…”

EPA delays on a new protective air quality standard prompted law suits from public health and environmental groups and the attorneys general of 11 states in New England, the West Coast and mid-Atlantic. New York AG Eric Schneiderman led the charge and won a decision that gave EPA a deadline for the new soot standard.

An old chestnut about Franklin Roosevelt comes to mind. Shortly after his election in 1932 FDR reportedly met with labor leaders about their agenda. His response:
"I agree with you. I want to do it. Now, make me do it."

EPA’s soot saga shows the same holds true in the effort to clean air and save lives from pollution. Someone has to make them do it.

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