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An urgency for the EPA

The best way to appreciate the benefits of environmental regulation is to travel internationally. I don't mean to First World cities like Toronto or Paris but to places where government is unable or unwilling to rein in polluters.

When I was in Beijing about 10 years ago, travelers could expect days of thick smog and see locals wearing face masks. What I saw in Lagos, Nigeria, were waterways piled high with garbage while children played nearby. The tap water? Don't even brush your teeth with it.

In my experience, anywhere pollution was allowed to exist, it did, ruining the outdoors and the health of human beings. But in America we have the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yes, the EPA, the great "job-killing organization of America" as Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann dubbed it. She'd repeal it if she could. So would former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP presidential hopeful, who would replace it with the "Environmental Solutions Agency" that would work cooperatively with industry. Because that worked so well in the past.

The EPA is under assault right now by Republicans on the campaign trail as well as in Congress. Last week, House Republicans outlined new cuts they will seek, representing an 18 percent reduction from current spending. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has been called before a congressional energy subcommittee to be pilloried by its chairman, Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican. She's a Republican punching bag.

There is a fever pitch of hysteria coming from conservatives against a host of regulations that would tighten rules on harmful emissions from coal-burning power plants, mining operations and vehicles. The new rules are needed in light of the latest scientific data on dangers posed to human health from various pollutants. Even former Republican EPA administrators, William Ruckelshaus and Christine Todd Whitman, have been defending the Obama administration's efforts, including on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

But congressional Republicans, representing their industry donors and climate-change deniers, are in full attack mode. As always, the science is irrelevant, and when profits are at risk, so is human health.

What a far cry from the bipartisanship that surrounded the EPA's beginnings in 1970 when Republican President Richard Nixon established it. That year, a Democratically controlled Congress passed the Clean Air Act by a vote of 73-to-0 in the Senate and 374-to-1 in the House. Everyone understood that the time had come to put the Earth first.

America desperately needed heavy-handed, top-down environmental regulation. As Ruckelshaus and Whitman noted in a Washington Post op-ed, air in major cities was so smog-filled that Bob Hope joked, "I don't trust air I can't see." The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969, and Lake Erie was declared dead a year later.

Obviously, the policy of leaving industry to police itself was an unmitigated failure. Even free-market proponents realized that without government-imposed pollution controls, businesses won't invest clean technologies since they'd be at a competitive disadvantage. The state-by-state approach didn't work either. Powerful industries simply co-opted local politicians.

Last year marked the EPA's 40th anniversary. A report card by the nonpartisan Aspen Institute highlighted 10 ways the agency has strengthened America. These include removing lead from gasoline, as well as from the air, controlling car emissions, managing toxic chemicals such as DDT and asbestos, and cleaning the water. We all live stunningly better lives due to the agency's work.

But there are signs the Obama EPA is bowing to the haranguing. In Florida the agency just backed off its years-long effort to establish clean water standards for the state's waterways, leaving it to the state to police nutrient runoff from farms and industrial plants. The backward lesson is, create enough of a ruckus over cost and polluters win.

Around the world, life is miserable when polluters win. In China, thousands of villagers and children suffer from exposure to lead released from nearby factories. Without a robust government regulator, it can happen here too. Again.

An urgency for the EPA 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 5:30am]
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