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The Men Who Cried Wolf

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Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green For All

If a fire broke out in your office right now, would you know what to do? Would you know where to go? You likely would, thanks in large part to codes requiring fire exits and fire drills.

Today, we accept these basic standards without even pausing; they are plain common sense rules government has developed to benefit and protect the public. But, as crazy as it sounds, there was a time when fire codes were considered burdensome regulations by businesses — employees had to risk their lives just to go to work. A century ago this month, for example, near the end of the workday, a fire broke out at Triangle Waist Company in New York City, engulfing the top floors of the building.

500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, rushed to the doors, only to find they were locked — the owners wanted to keep their employees from leaving while on the job. Panic ensued. 146 people died, including many who jumped out of the 10th story windows to escape the flames.

As word of the tragedy spread, outrage grew. Government officials, recognizing the need for reform, proposed a series of new regulations that were eventually adopted.

They just wanted to raise the standards of acceptable behavior, which included requiring businesses to hold fire drills and install water sprinklers.

Nothing too radical, right? Not according to many business leaders at the time who complained that new regulations would cripple the economy. According to the Cry Wolf Project, one said the rules would result in "the wiping out of industry in this state." Another, channeling Grover Norquist, stated that "to my mind this is all wrong….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government."

Anyone who has been to New York City in the past 100 years knows that it managed just fine — government's work to raise the standards of acceptable behavior didn't hinder its growth.

Time and again, this same old story played out throughout history: government introduces new regulations to make life a little better and safer, and the "men who cry wolf" respond by screaming that the world is ending. That story continues today.

Case in point: The Environmental Protection Agency's new mercury and air toxics rule, which will raise the baseline for the amount of mercury and other hazardous pollutants emitted by power plants. The new standards, which are court-mandated, don't require that power plants emit floral-scented perfumes and pure water vapor, but just that the lowest acceptable levels be a little higher.

And, in response, this generation's "men who cry wolf" pulls out its old playbook; they call the new rule a "job killer," and recklessly use fear to make others think it's bad for our economy. Why? Because the rules benefit the general public, and not just their own personal interests.

As Ronald Reagan would say: There they go again.

The truth is that this proposed rule would actually create jobs – but not only for the businesses lobbying Congress. A report from Ceres recently reported that implementation of this rule — along with the proposed Clean Air Transport Rule — will produce 1.46 million jobs over the next five years, in areas like construction, maintenance and installation.

Working class communities would benefit both economically and environmentally by this simple shift in standards — but ideologues and dirty energy interests don't care about that. They care about their own businesses, they care about their own agendas.

If you lived directly next to a power plant and had a dial that could set how much toxic mercury settled into your yard and came in your windows, what would you set it to? The EPA is turning that dial down, and the same rhetorical ghosts we've heard moaning and whispering for a century are trying to stay its hand.

Just because a few bucks are going to someone else.

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