When It Comes to Clean Air, Must We Choose Jobs Over Health?

Environmental Commentary by Karen Hosler

Why are power plants worth more than the health of 140,000 Maryland children afflicted with asthma? What about pregnant women eating mercury-tainted fish from the Chesapeake Bay? How could their risk be scored so low compared to a utility plant’s profit?

And what of the boaters, watermen, crab house owners and all the others whose livelihoods depend on a healthy Chesapeake? Why should their interests come behind the mostly out-of-state industries that don’t want to meet tougher federal clean air regulations?

The answer we are given is jobs, jobs, jobs: good-paying, steady employment that has become the Holy Grail of our recession-ridden times.

Congress says the economy is so weak and the climate for such jobs so poor that clean air and clean water regulations are simply not affordable.

“As much as we want clean air, we would like jobs,” Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, told the House last week. “We have the cleanest environment that anyone has seen in decades in this country…The debate now is: How clean is clean? What is the cost benefit analysis and what is the effect on jobs if we get to a limit that you don’t find naturally?”

A few hours after he spoke, the House voted 249 to 169, led mostly by Mr. Shimkus’ fellow Republicans, to effectively block two Environmental Protection Agency rules: one that would reduce power plant emissions generally, and a second that would protect downwind states in the East from pollution blowing in from their Midwest neighbors—like Rep. Shimkus’ Illinois.

You might take heart that the Senate is not likely to repeat the House assault on these so-called “job-killing regulations.” But President Obama has already capitulated on an update of smog rules that might have helped Baltimore, Washington, Northern Virginia and Philadelphia escape their top ranking among U.S. cities with the dirtiest air. The month or more of days each year when it is unsafe to breathe the air here may explain a lot about why Congress regularly blows town in August.

The Bay watershed states are already the biggest losers in the decision urged by Congress and adopted by Obama recently to delay imposition of tougher limits on coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.

There’s little relief from air pollution available from a dip in the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries. One third of the nitrogen pollution that washes into the bay comes from airborne sources. Nitrogen oxides blowing downwind add to the nutrients washing off farms and fields and out of storm drains, feeding the algae that block the sun and rob sea life of vital oxygen. Our overcrowded highways and oily vehicle emissions play a big role in air pollution, of course. And the air brings mercury as well.

Maryland has one of the toughest clean air standards for power plants in the nation, according to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. Yet,” he complained, “last year 12 out of 15 counties had 55 days or more where the ground-level ozone levels were at code orange or code red levels.” In a speedy protest of Obama’s decision to delay tightening the ozone standards, the Maryland Democrat said: “Good science — not to mention medical records — tells us that current standards are not protecting the health of our residents.”

Ironically, the threat to jobs posed by environmental regulation seems something of a red herring. Sure, jobs will be lost if a dirty, old plant is shut down, but new jobs at more modern facilities will become available. Simply comparing benefits to costs, a recent Economic Policy Institute study shows that most clean air rules offer benefits that exceed costs by as much as 20 to one. The cross-state air pollution rule that would protect downwind states adds another $100 billion in benefits a year.

When other factors including medical costs, lost wages from illness, and lost work days to employers are added to the equation, the benefits swing even further to the side of regulation.

Even so, most people seem to believe that a job in the hand is worth 10 in the bush, and long-term health threats are relatively easy to ignore. But here’s a warning from Rep. Earl Blumenauer that might carry more weight. The Oregon Democrat told the House the other night that the Chinese are likely to become competitors in the field of exporting green technology.

“The Chinese are going to make money by being cleaner, adopting technologies to reduce emissions,” he said. “The losers are going to be the American economy.”

So, maybe we if can engage the Chinese in a green technology race, we can afford a few more days without a red or orange alert. Seems worth a try.

Karen Hosler, a former editorial writer, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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