Clean air, water didn't sink economy

capitol building
The Clean Air and Clean Water acts, implemented during the Nixon administration, have done much to clean up the environment across the nation.

At this moment, our elected representatives in Washington are struggling to cope with the nation's budget deficit.

For the 2011 fiscal year, the Treasury Department estimates the federal deficit will reach a record $1.65 trillion.

Many manufacturing jobs have escaped overseas to lower-wage nations. It is tempting to look for scapegoats.

Loudly among conservatives we hear, "Do you want to protect jobs or the environment?" Several members of Congress and presidential hopefuls have proposed rolling back the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts as a solution to our woes.

Rep. Michele Bachmann has suggested renaming the EPA the "Job-Killing Organization of America." Several other candidates have echoed the sentiment, "just give business the freedom to operate, and we'll be fine."

Or will we?

The Clean Air and Clean Water acts, implemented during the Nixon administration, have done much to clean up the environment across the nation. Do we have good examples of where the Clean Air Act has forced jobs overseas?

Asking our electric utilities to remove nirogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other airborne chemicals from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants adds a fraction of a cent to the average cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

On the flip side, these safeguards have resulted in measurable improvements to the air we breathe, the water we drink and the fish we consume — for all Americans.

Air pollutants, such as ozone and particulates, are associated with a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes. Kids are hit especially hard by pollution exposure. Mercury and lead can cause developmental delays. Ozone is implicated in the widespread occurrence of asthma among school-age children in the eastern United States. Indeed, the EPA estimates that enforcement of the Clean Air Act produces a median 30-fold return on investment, when the costs of early mortality and health care are considered.

Many believe that resource extraction, such as hydrofracking for natural gas and mountaintop coal removal, should be allowed to proceed with little government regulation via the Clean Water Act.

These corporations claim they can do it right, providing jobs and economic growth for all. Those who ask for science to inform a regulatory framework are labeled as impediments to progress.

What happened to the thoughtful, conservative ideal of moving forth slowly, to avoid future pitfalls and problems?

Five hundred new jobs are now associated with removing PCBs from the Hudson River's sediments. Perhaps these are a welcome addition to our workforce, but are jobs dependent upon the past pollution of the environment really the way to move our nation forward?

The conservative wave that swept the nation in the fall of 2010 asked Congress to shape-up the nation's finances. Financial reform is long overdue.

But Americans did not ask to breathe dirty air and drink dirty water — not then, not now and not ever.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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