How Politics Hurts the EPA’s Important Mission

Protecting Americans from toxic substances has become a bi-partisan battleground. The EPA chief protests the politicization of pollution

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ulf Wallin / Getty Images

When a fire erupted at a Texas chemical plant on the morning of Oct. 3, emergency responders were dispatched from the local fire department, city and state governments, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was on the scene to monitor air quality around the burning plant and make certain that the nearby area — which includes an elementary school — was safe from toxic pollution. By the afternoon, EPA monitors had detected no public-health threat but remained on duty to ensure the safety of the community.

This is what the EPA does. Whether we’re taking part in an emergency response to a chemical fire, or developing long-term efforts to remove mercury — a neurotoxin that can cause serious health problems in children — from our air, our mission is to protect American families from pollution in our environment. Lately, however, that mission has faced serious challenges.

Much of that has come in the form of misleading information. One example is an assertion — made by lobbying and industry groups — that the EPA is putting forward a “train wreck” of regulations that will hobble the U.S. economy. That claim has been repeated in major news outlets and on the floor of Congress. But it’s founded on an American Legislative Executive Council report that details regulations the EPA never proposed.

(PHOTOS: Lisa Jackson’s EPA Career)

False claims like these have real consequences. In recent months, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to roll back Clean Air Act protections that would save lives, prevent asthma attacks, foster innovation and new jobs, and safeguard children from harmful pollution. The choices being presented are stark: either setting standards that prevent power plants from sending mercury and other toxins into the air we breathe or leaving ourselves unprotected; either allowing aging coal plants to emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into our skies, or ensuring that every facility in America meets at least the most basic standards for modern pollution control.

Rather than taking up the President’s proposals on job creation or offering alternatives of their own, some members of Congress are instead spending their time trying to weaken protections for the air we breathe. Even successful initiatives like the clean cars program are under threat. That effort will save drivers money, make American vehicles more efficient than ever and keep millions of tons of pollution out of the air we breathe. The program was crafted by auto companies, auto workers, federal and state officials, and environmentalists, who ended years of divisive debate and came together to find a workable solution. Last year, General Motors and Chrysler even announced plans to hire 1,000 new workers — each — to develop fuel-efficient vehicles. Despite the win-win outcome for our economy and our environment, Congress has continued to question the program.

(MORE: Lisa Jackson: The New Head of the EPA)

No American wants dirtier air and more polluted water. No one is calling for more childhood asthma, especially when 1 in 10 school-aged children are already fighting the disease. No one believes that we should go back to the way it was before the EPA existed, when rivers were coated with industrial sludge and fouled with untreated sewage.

The challenges we face as a nation deserve a fact-based discussion, not scare tactics. We shouldn’t let a lot of hot air in Washington lead to dirty air in your hometown. Yet that’s the direction we’re headed if we continue to put politics ahead of our health and environmental protection.