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Opinion – Policymakers: Don’t take clean air for granted

clean air

The US Clean Air Act was signed into law in December, 1970 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate after environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland spurred lawmakers to action. Cleveland State University Library photo.

States, EPA worked for decades to clean air, water

By Jason Bordoff

Jan 18 (Reuters) – While environmental pollution and risks persist in the United States, as seen most recently with the Flint water crisis, many Americans today take clean air and water for granted. With Donald Trump two days from his inauguration as the country’s president, it is a good time — as Congress considers his nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, who has like the president-elect been a vocal critic of the agency — to recall that this was not always the case.

On January 28, 1969, one week after President Nixon’s inauguration, a leak developed at the offshore Union Oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It took nearly two weeks to plug the leak. By the time the spill was contained, nearly 100,000 barrels of oil polluted the sea, creating a 35-mile long oil slick that fouled some of the most beautiful beaches on California’s coastline.

Five months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames, believed to have ignited when sparks from a passing train overhead fell onto the oil-soaked debris on the river’s surface. When TIME Magazine published dramatic photos of a river on fire, it reported that the river was so saturated with sewage and industrial waste that it oozed rather than flowed.

From extreme smog that cloaked Los Angeles and other cities, to fish kills in waters contaminated from raw sewage, and chemicals brought to light in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring, which helped launch the modern American environmental movement, these were not isolated incidents.

In the wake of World War Two, rapid industrialization and mass consumption delivered myriad benefits to Americans, but also led to widespread pollution problems. These came to a head with several high-profile incidents like those above, which created broad-based public pressure on federal politicians.

Environmental issues historically had been left to states. While some like California pursued strong environmental protections, others did not. States feared a loss of economic competitiveness if other states had weaker regulations. Moreover, pollution does not abide by state borders, so even states that took bolder actions could suffer from weaker regulations in neighboring states.

Over time, the case for federal action in protecting our air and water became increasingly clear. Sensing this growing public demand for federal intervention, President Nixon — historically not vocal on environmental issues — stepped out in front. In 1970, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act on national television and proclaimed the 1970s to be the “environmental decade.” It was “now or never,” he said.

After the first Earth Day in April 1970, Nixon announced the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in July and signed the landmark Clean Air Act in December. Two years later, the Clean Water Act was passed. All the environmental bills from this era were enacted by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate.

By any measure, the effects on public health and the environment have been dramatic. Since 1970, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants-particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide-dropped an average of 70 per cent, preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. The Clean Water Act has dramatically reduced pollution discharges into lakes, rivers and coastal waters — two-thirds of which were unsafe for swimming or fishing when the Act was signed in 1972.

EPA has banned the pesticide DDT, which was threatening wildlife like the bald eagle and public health; removed the acid from rain; taken the lead of out gasoline that was causing millions of children to suffer cognitive problems; protected us from the harm of secondhand smoke; reduced levels of vehicle pollutants and toxic chemicals; and cleaned up thousands of contaminated sites so they can be redeveloped. The list goes on.

Policymakers from different parties and ideological backgrounds can, and should, disagree about how to design environmental regulations, such as whether to use market-based tools or more command-and-control regulations. They should debate the proper balance between local and federal oversight. They should challenge each other on often complex analytic questions about when proposed regulations go too far and impose costs that exceed benefits.

But they should all remember that the modern environmental movement did not arise among tree-hugging Greens on the far left, but rather from mainstream Americans fed up with fouled waters and choking air. They should remember environmental protections did not bring an end to American economic growth.

This week, while lawmakers conduct a hearing for a new EPA administrator, they should ensure the next administrator recognizes the invaluable role EPA has played for nearly a half century to provide a cleaner, safer and healthier environment for all Americans.

(Jason Bordoff; @JasonBordoff; Editing by Alden Bentley)

Jason Bordoff, a former energy adviser to President Barack Obama, is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs and founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. The opinions expressed are his own.

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