Dirty Politics, Foul Air

Article excerpt

At Pittsburgh's Jefferson Elementary School, which overlooks the dark gray plumes from two electric power plants, there are so many children with asthma the school nurse alphabetizes the inhalers. On warm, humid days, heavy air traps the ozone and other toxic chemicals produced by the region's eleven coal-burning power plants. In the adjacent county, nearly all 40,000 residents face a pollution-related cancer risk greater than 100 times the goal set by federal clean-air policy. "On the bad pollution days we just don't go outside and play," says Lisa Graves-Marcucci, whose two sons, both asthmatics, attended Jefferson Elementary.

In 1970 Congress created the Clean Air Act to regulate air pollution, with the intention of cleaning up the skies by 1975. Obviously that didn't happen. As science has revealed new types of industrial pollution, the law has been periodically amended to expand cleanup goals and extend timelines. Things are improving: Between 1970 and 2003, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants decreased 51 percent. But there's still a long way to go. Today, due in large part to lax enforcement, 224 counties and Washington, DC, don't meet federal health standards, according to documents released in December by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's 95 million people who breathe toxic air.

Yet instead of updating and strengthening the act, the Bush Administration is working to weaken it, with the absurdly titled "Clear Skies Initiative," which sells out public health in order to help the electric utility industry save money.

Electric power plants, the country's single largest source of air pollution, spew soot--tiny particles of toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides--causing 554,000 asthma attacks and 38,200 heart attacks annually, according to Abt Associates, a consulting firm that does work for the EPA. Fairly small increases in ozone levels cause several thousand people to die prematurely every year from heart attacks and respiratory ailments such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and complications from asthma, as a 2004 Journal of the American Medical Association study found. And long-term exposure to sulfate air pollution and other particles emitted by power plants may increase the risk of lung cancer, heart attacks and heart arrhythmia, say numerous studies in prestigious American medical journals.

The vast majority of these deaths could be avoided if the EPA exercised its full authority, demanding the best available emission controls. Under this Administration, that's not going to happen.

Current law requires that power plants reduce mercury, sulfur and nitrogen no later than 2010. Bush's Clear Skies Initiative sets new emission targets for pollutants, allowing five times more mercury emissions, one and a half times more sulfur dioxide emissions and hundreds of thousands more tons of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides than allowed under current law. …