Back to the Days Before Environmental Protection
By Michael Brune, Sierra Club Magazine, May/June 2011
NOSTALGIA CAN BE WONDERFUL. The salt spray of the ocean takes me back to long summer days at the beach in New Jersey when I was a kid. Springsteen's "Thunder Road" always resonates in a special way. And whenever I go to a Yankees game, I remember running home from school just in time to catch Bucky Dent's three-run homer at Fenway to win the division in 1978. (Sorry, Red Sox fans.)
But sometimes nostalgia is hard to figure out. Who could get dewy-eyed over the bad old days of unchecked air and water pollution? Apparently, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, which has proposed cutting the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 29 percent ($3 billion) this year.
They miss the America without a Clean Water Act, the one where Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire. The one without a Clean Air Act, where choking smog made it impossible for New Yorkers to see 400 yards across the Hudson River.
Rivers don't catch fire these days, and the view across the Hudson is clearer, but it's not as if pollution has disappeared. Americans shouldn't have to worry about the air they breathe; yet every year, half a million of our fellow citizens die from cardiopulmonary diseases linked to fine-particle air pollution. And it doesn't just affect folks who live near coal plants; wind can carry soot hundreds of miles. But Congressional Republicans want to prevent the EPA from updating Clean Air Act standards. We shouldn't have to worry about the water we drink either; yet millions of Americans are sickened by contaminated water every year. Still, the GOP wants to slash this year's budget for state clean-water projects by $947 million.
With so much progress behind us and so many challenges like climate change remaining, why would politicians want to repeal existing environmental protections and interfere with the EPA's ability to do its job? They certainly aren't doing it in response to popular opinion. Nearly two out of three Americans say they actually want the EPA to do more to hold polluters accountable and to protect our air and water, according to a USA Today-Gallup poll.
For most Americans, cleaning up pollution isn't an ideological issue; it's just common sense. Asthma is epidemic among our kids. The list of potentially cancer-causing chemicals in our drinking water keeps getting longer. Lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals are building up in our bodies.
But guess what? Commonsense citizens are not the ones calling the shots in Congress. Instead, polluter-funded politicians are doing their paymasters' bidding. For example, the largest donors to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, whose many polluting businesses are regulated by the EPA. Accordingly, a top goal of the committee is to restrict the EPA's power; 9 out of 12 Republicans on the committee have signed a Koch-sponsored pledge to prevent the EPA from limiting greenhouse-gas pollution.
The paid apologists for the Kochs and other polluters say that the country can't afford to clean up, but in fact we can't afford not to. The healthcare costs from coal-fired power plant pollution are greater than those from smoking. Especially at a time when the price of healthcare is the single biggest contributor to our national deficit, preventing needless illness has enormous economic benefits. And the new, cleaner technologies that are the result of environmental laws currently on the books are already creating tens of thousands of good, green jobs.
So let's not get nostalgic for the days before the EPA protected us from dirty air and water, or fall for phony economics that values polluters' profits over Americans' lives. We aren't going back. And our message to those who would try to drag us there is (thank you, Mr. Springsteen) unequivocal: "No retreat, baby, no surrender."
Written by MICHAEL BRUNE, the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at