Our turn to insist on clean air and water
February 21, 2017
Thick orange smog; spewing smokestacks; choking acrid air. Modern day China or India? No. America before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I saw it and smelled it for myself in the 1960s as a child in the New York metropolitan area. We lived in Connecticut but visited my grandparents in New Jersey. In the Chevy Bel Air station wagon on the New Jersey Turnpike we drove past the "Meadowlands." The marshland had been used for decades as a dump for anything toxic or unwanted, from building rubble to a soup of chemicals to the occasional mobster. Even on the hottest days, we rolled up the windows to avoid breathing the fetid air. I held my breath but never long enough to avoid inhaling the stench. In those days, pollution was just part of life.
In the 1960s, more awareness of the damaging effects of "better living through chemistry" became known. Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" educated ordinary Americans about the effects of DDT on the natural world. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, by executive order, to consolidate and coordinate federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities. In Nixon's words, "Because environmental protection cuts across so many jurisdictions, and because arresting environmental deterioration is of great importance to the quality of life in our country and the world, I believe that in this case a strong, independent agency is needed."
Scott Pruitt, President Trump's new EPA administrator, opposes government overreach and supports states' rights. In his confirmation hearing, he said EPA has a role in interstate disputes, but individual states should be able to determine how and to what extent to implement and enforce environmental laws. As Attorney General of Oklahoma he has sued EPA 14 times regarding mercury, smog and other pollutants, and has close ties to industries regulated by EPA including oil and gas.
Can EPA do better? Of course. The scandal of Flint, Mich., where both EPA and state officials failed to protect residents, especially children, from drinking water contaminated with lead is a national disgrace.
But it's also important to understand how much our environment has improved since 1970. Consider air quality. In 1997, EPA released a study on the benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act from 1970 to 1990. In that 20-year period, without environmental laws that mandated cleaner air and water, they estimated 205,000 Americans would have died prematurely and millions more would have suffered from a range of respiratory problems and disease. In stark terms, if the U.S. had done nothing, our metropolitan areas (in 1990) would have been worse than the polluted cities of India.
EPA concluded "From 1970 to 2015, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants alone dropped an average of 70 percent while gross domestic product grew by 246 percent." EPA credits efforts by state, local and tribal governments; EPA; private sector companies; and environmental groups among others.
Scott Pruitt intends to make EPA smaller and less effective, and narrow its mission. His emphasis on states' rights likely has intended and unintended consequences. Under Administrator Pruitt's direction at EPA, states like Oklahoma will be emboldened to encourage pollution for the sake of business.
But in Nevada, we have a choice. It's important for our economic future and quality of life to maintain environmental protection standards and promote clean energy. The push for rooftop solar and renewables in sunny Nevada is a citizen-driven centerpiece of the 2017 Legislature's agenda. This state has the right to insist on clean air and water and state level policies which encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency. We must never return to the smoggy choking days before the EPA existed.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.