I authored this piece on Lake Powell. pessimism, optimism and the age of climate change…
A year and a half ago my kids and I were on our way to explore Mesa Verde National Park when we ran across an orange river. You’ve heard about it. The Animas River was poisoned by a spill of mine waste from the Gold King mine near Leadville, Colorado. I wrote this at the time:
For nearly 100 years, individual miners and later giant mining companies ravaged the landscape of Colorado in a mad race for wealth. They drove off the original inhabitants of the land and then pocketed the watersheds with toxic holes. They made hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars and then literally just walked away from the mess they created.
But the mess didn’t go away. In fact, the toxic legacy of the unregulated, runaway mining days impacts pretty much every corner of Colorado today. In the 1970’s Colorado began looking to the Federal government for help to deal with the mess left by the miner. The EPA stepped in, spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to deal with the toxic legacy of mining
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got and took the blame for the spill, it wasn’t really their fault.
Politicians like Republican Congressman Scott Tipton, whose district borders the area of the spill have voted again and again to defund the EPA (34 times against programs and funding to keep water and air clean, 98 times to defund or weaken the EPA). And then there is Senator Cory Gardner who voted to nullify safeguards that prevent the dumping of dangerous mining waste into our waterways. The moves against the EPA and to stop mining reclamation are, sadly, endless.
The EPA is a favorite target of Republicans. They hate it. The billionaires who fund them hate it. They cut the EPA budget so it can’t do its work properly and then blame the agency because it can’t do its work properly. And now, it looks like things are going to get worse. Yesterday, a member of the Trump Administration said they want to cut the agency in half, literally fire half its employees.
“About half the EPA’s budget passes through to state and local governments for infrastructure projects and environmental cleanup efforts that Ebell said Trump supports. He said the cuts would likely fall on the remaining half the agency’s budget, which pays for agency operations and environmental enforcement.”
This is tiring. It’s old. It’s freaking boring. The random, made-up and incoherent bulls**t pro-pollution Republicans have been spouting for decades is damaging to the environment, our health and our economy.
The EPA has about 15,000 employees nation-wide. That is about 300 staff members in each state. That is less than the number of staff at a single Wal-Mart super center. These EPA employees in local and regional offices do things like monitor air and water pollution and work with local officials to achieve clean up goals. Many of these positions are directly mandated by the Clean Water Act, the Clear Air Act and other laws. Many of these positions are dedicated to cleaning up places like the Gold King mine.
Cutting the EPA in half might save about $1 billion. Compare that with the estimated $15 billion for Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Or the $38 billion the USA gives in military aid to Israel. What is the price point for clean air and water? The cost of cutting the EPA in half would far outweigh the paltry savings. So it’s helpful to understand what the EPA actually does.
Fifty years ago, before the Environmental Protection Agency was created, America’s air and water was extremely dirty (photos). Our cities were choked with smog. Our waterways were choked with chemicals and sewage. I remember as a kid the roadways being covered in litter. Rivers were literally catching on fire from all the crap we had dumped in them. We were at a crisis point. Many today can’t even imagine what it was like back then. Luckily we do have the photos and the data to remind us.
The extraordinary progress made in cleaning our nation’s air and water since 1975 wasn’t just magic. It required work. Regulations, innovation, information and hard work. All this done by the EPA. These are the people who keep coal ash from flowing into North Carolina’s rivers. These are the people who plan for oil spills and terrorist attacks. These are the people who assist in criminal investigations. It is estimated that in 2010, for example the reductions in pollution from the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 premature deaths, more than 80,000 emergency room visits, 130,000 heart attacks, 13 million lost work days, 1.7 million asthma attacks. Air and water pollution has brutal costs. In fact, air pollution in 2016 is estimated to have killed over 5 million people worldwide and cost over $5 trillion globally. Pollution is a huge economic drag.
The deadliest and costliest weather events of 2016 were very likely high pressure systems with light winds and stagnant air that led to lethal build-ups of dangerous air pollutants in Asia. One such event, a severe air pollution episode being called The Great Smog of Delhi, hit the most polluted major city in the world—New Delhi, India—on November 1 – 9, 2016. On November 7, Delhi’s levels of the deadliest air pollutant—fine particulate matter (PM 2.5)—hit 999 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 40 times higher than the World Health Organization guideline of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for a 24-hour period. Sustained breathing of air pollution at these levels is like smoking more than two packs of cigarettes per day.
Those who constantly complain about the costs of environmental regulations never want to discuss the tremendous costs of pollution.
Too often, we hear about the costs of air pollution regulations, but nothing on the savings in lives and money that result from breathing clean air. Part of the problem is that quantifying the deaths and damage due to air pollution episodes is difficult. However, there are over 2,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies linking air pollution to “premature deaths”—mortality caused by air pollution that is only partly attributable to breathing bad air, but that would not have occurred otherwise. The World Bank estimated in 2016 that premature deaths due to air pollution in 2013 (the most recent year statistics were available) were 5.5 million people, at a cost of over $5 trillion. The total costs to countries in East and South Asia related to air pollution mortality were about 7.5 percent of GDP, they estimated. Additional health care costs to people who did not die were not considered, and neither was pollution damage done to agriculture. Computer modeling by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson in 2016 predicted that the total cost of air pollution globally under a business-as-usual emissions path will reach $23 trillion per year (7.6% of global GDP) by 2050.
No offense to China and India but…no thanks.
It has been reported that EPA scientists are now (as of this week) being required to run their findings past political monitors in the Trump Adminstration. This is literally…literally…what the Soviets used to do. So we are entering some very un-American territory here. Republicans like to say that the scientists are bias. Science doesn’t have a political party or persuasion. Once you start denying and rejection science however, you make it political.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado along the Animas River the fight over the mine spill continues:
The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it will pay $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments for their emergency response to a mine spill that the EPA triggered, but the agency turned down $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses.
If the new administration gets its way and there are more cuts to the EPA as Republicans want there will be more disasters like kids with lead poisoning, more people dying of asthma attacks, more oil spills, more Gold King spills … and fewer people to deal with it.
And what does that cost?
It is time to call your Senator and Representative and demand full-funding for the EPA and for them to stand firm against any cuts in staff at the EPA.
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