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Protecting our air: A need to fight pollution – not each other

 “… use for the good of others the special gifts (we) have received from God.” (I Peter – Good News Translation of the Bible)

FOUNDING FATHERS’ PERSPECTIVE

“In the environment, every victory is temporary, every defeat is permanent.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” (John Adams)

FACTS

What we call “air” is the layer of atmospheric gases that surround Earth and are kept in place by our planet’s gravity. This “air” is what makes Earth habitable. It absorbs dangerous ultraviolet light, warms the surface by retaining heat, and reduces severe temperature extremes. Most of earth’s air is in the troposphere, the thinnest layer of the atmosphere that is closest to the earth’s surface.
Wikipedia “Atmosphere of Earth” 


The air we breathe is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% trace elements of half-a-dozen other gases and substances, including helium, hydrogen, methane, and water vapor. “Breathing pure oxygen” is just a figure of speech. Literally doing that would be fatal because the body can’t process pure oxygen fast enough to continue functioning.
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center “The air we breathe”
Science Focus, 7/22/09. Villazon, Luis “Why does breathing pure oxygen kill you?” 


Air pollution refers to particles or chemicals in the air in solid, liquid, or gaseous form, that can harm living things, and even buildings.

It was originally believed that air pollution didn’t exist until the Industrial Revolution, but scientists have found measurable evidence in ice cores that it was present at least 2,000 years ago. Scientists attribute this to the methane created by the beginning of large-scale agriculture, and also to increased metallurgy-related fires, as more weapons were produced in Europe and Asia.
National Geographic, 4/4/11. “Air Pollution”
Smithsonian.com, February 2013. Stromberg, Joseph “Air pollution has been a problem since the days of ancient Rome” 


A landmark air pollution incident in the US occurred in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania. A warm air pocket passed over the town at high altitude. It trapped a larger-than-usual amount of the polluted Donora air (due to steel and zinc smelting), and prevented pollutants from escaping. Within a five-day period, about half of the town’s 14,000 residents experienced severe respiratory problems and almost 40 died. This lead to more scientists studying the link between air pollution and health.

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1963, which created national air quality standards; the federal Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970.

Environmental Protection Agency, 1/24/17 “History of air pollution” 


The amended Clean Air Act of 1970 originally focused on monitoring and reducing six major “criteria pollutants”: substances that are found in the air nation-wide, and threaten health and safety. The pollutants are: particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. The Clean Air act also targeted acid rain, and regional haze (that effects visibility). Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which did not meet the definition of a pollutant, was NOT included on that original list.
Environmental Protection Agency, 1/4/17. “Clean Air Act requirements and history” 


Major sources of air pollution include the following:

  • The combustion of coal, oil, and gas to generate electricity
  • The burning of gasoline and diesel for transportation vehicles
  • The smelting of heavy metals (releases lead and mercury)
  • Burning wood for heating and cooking
  • The agricultural use of nitrogen fertilizers and animal waste accumulation
  • Natural sources like forest fires and volcanoes

Stockholm Environment Institute, January 2017. “Global atmospheric pollution forum” 


More than half the people in the US breathe air polluted enough to cause health problems. California has the most polluted air of any state, with six of the 10 most polluted cities. That still places the overall quality of US air in the top 15% among all other countries: more than three times less polluted than the air in China, which ranks in the bottom 5% internationally.
Numbeo, 2017 “Pollution index for countries 2017”
American Lung Association, “Most Polluted Cities” 


The Clean Air Act is acknowledged to have prevented more than 400,000 premature deaths, and millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. It has reduced ground-level ozone by 25%, reduced lead content in gasoline and thereby reduced lead air pollution by 92%, reduced mercury emissions by 45%, and reduced the main pollutants that contribute to acid rain by over 50%.
Union of Concerned Scientists “The Clean Air Act” 


The EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act became highly controversial in 2007 with two Supreme Court rulings. Several states and environmental organizations sued the EPA to force them to expand their regulatory powers to automobile emissions. They also wanted the EPA to exercise authority over any power plant or factory seeking to increase carbon dioxide emissions. The court found for both plaintiffs because it supported their global warming-based argument that even though carbon dioxide was not a legally defined pollutant, it still effects the public’s health and welfare, and thus comes under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act and EPA.

The four dissenting Supreme Court justices signed an opinion stating that addressing these types of issues is the duty of the legislative and executive branches, and not the judicial.
New York Times, 4/3/07. Greenhouse, Linda “Justices say EPA has power to act on greenhouse gases” 


Newly-appointed EPA Director Scott Pruitt, has announced plans to leave more environmental decisions on air and water to individual states, and limit the federal government’s involvement in forcing emissions regulations on energy production facilities. Mr. Pruitt, who disagrees with the anthropogenic (man-made) theory of Climate Change, says the EPA has exceeded its legal authority in a number of cases. Critics accuse Mr. Pruitt of acting as a de facto lobbyist for oil companies. Mr. Pruitt claims he is strictly advocating for the Constitutional provision for states’ rights.

Opponents fear Mr. Pruitt’s actions will reverse the progress made in reducing air pollution. Mr. Pruitt states that environmental protection can be accomplished without over-regulating energy companies, ruining the economy, and violating the Constitution.
The New York Times, 1/18/17. Davenport, Coral “Scott Pruitt, Testifying to lead EPA, criticizes environmental rules”
The Guardian, 2/14/17. Berg, Nate “Breathless in Bakersfield: Is the worst air pollution in the US about to get worse?” 

SUMMARY

Life-sustaining air and water flow between state boundaries. National quality standards and federal oversight of both commodities are justified, necessary, and have greatly benefited our nation. Equally important is the need to have clear, respected lines of authority between the 3 branches of government so that reasonable environmental protection and unreasonable political agendas do not get inter-twined.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION

New EPA Director Scott Pruitt should take advantage of this fresh start with a new administration. He should commit sufficient time to developing and gaining bipartisan support for standards and policies that will be accepted as fair and reasonable to both private corporations and environmentalists. If Pruitt can get buy-in from Liberals and Conservatives, it will increase the chances of his new policies outlasting the current administration and achieving more long-term good for both the environment and the economy.

Brief # 29A – March 29, 2017

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