About 45 years ago, when we-the-people experienced what may fairly be called our “great environmental awakening,” a number of new laws and regulations were adopted. Many shared a common purpose: to protect the environment from additional degradation, and thereby protect the health and welfare of all living things — including us.
Of those new laws, three were of overriding importance: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It came as no surprise (nor should it have) that those three — because of the sweeping scope of their provisions — have roused the greatest controversy and have most often been subject to attack from corporate bodies who sought to undermine their provisions. There is no form of regulation, it would appear, so universally acceptable that it doesn’t gore someone’s ox; and the big three environmental laws have riled up as many as any you’d care to mention. At one time or another, one corporate interest or another has sought to gut just about every provision of all three.
Gratefully, such efforts have proven mostly to be a losing battle. The value of these statutes is such that they continue to enjoy as strong public support as any law in our history — and more than most. Years of public opinion polls have demonstrated public support that often ranges to 80 per cent or higher. (Name a single public official — or legislative body — that enjoys anything near so much approval!) As a result, virtually every attempt to weaken them by special interest amendment has failed either in the halls of Congress or the chambers of the federal courts.
So it may come as a surprise to some (and especially those corporate interests eager to undermine them) that environmental organizations also believe that the laws could benefit by improvement and expansion. The changes we seek, however, are on the side of expanding and strengthening their provisions. And no change has been more important from a public health viewpoint than the current promulgation of rules by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to limit the discharge of mercury from coal-fired electric power generating plants.
Of all issues, this ought to be a no-brainer. The toxic impact of mercury, especially as it affects the physical and mental development of young children, has been medically understood and described for generations. There is no question — none — regarding its destructive potential. Even minuscule amounts of mercury in the blood of a pregnant mother can permanently reduce the IQ of her child, prevent the brain from developing properly, and damage the kidneys and the liver. The science on these effects is neither new nor controversial.
The only question is why American utilities have been permitted to spew the stuff into the atmosphere for all those generations, most often into urban areas where, given socio-economic housing patterns typical of American cities, its impact has fallen most heavily on the urban poor.
And yet (should we be surprised?) the utilities that own and operate those plants, their profit margins continuing to be augmented by the ongoing practice of using the public’s air as a sewer, without fee or penalty, are fighting the promulgation of the proposed new rules. It will be too expensive, they contend. The cost of retrofitting old plants to meet the new standards, or building new plants that meet them, will drive the cost of electricity sky high. The economy can’t afford it.
The argument is less than compelling. It has been used to fight every regulation regarding electrical power plant pollution for the last half-century, and yet we still manage to afford electrical power. Indeed, the snail’s pace at which private citizens adopt conservation measures that would reduce our outlay for electricity overnight makes a chimera of any argument that rising electricity costs are breaking our budgetary backs.
However, let’s assume — for the sake of argument — that new constraints on mercury pollution will increase our electricity bills. Further, let’s assume that those elevated costs are sufficient to justify overruling the EPA. What, exactly, is it that we are arguing? That the degradation of human health (not to mention all the other damage that mercury does to every other living thing that shares our planet) is an acceptable price to pay to avoid homeowner inconvenience? Put another way, how many children growing up with compromised mental ability constitute an acceptable price to pay for each one-cent reduction in the per-killowatt-hour price of electricity? One? A dozen?
The issue is no longer whether some kids should be sacrificed for the benefit of utility convenience, but only how many. All we’re really doing at this point is haggling over the price. Is this how we define the moral high ground?
Can you imagine any loving parent saying, “Sure, go ahead. I’d rather have the government look out for the interests of outdated, dirty coal power plants than help keep my child safe?”
If this issue moves you, there is an immediate opportunity to do something about it. Contact our senators and representatives and let them know — beyond any doubt — how you feel about it, and what you expect of them.
Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.