Breathe Deep at Your Own Risk

Every year some 60,000 Americans are killed prematurely by ailments linked to air pollution, according to the Harvard Medical School. Nobody is certain just yet how much it would cost to save those lives, but one thing is apparent: the industries responsible for much of that pollution are spending millions to ensure that those lives will continue to be lost. Last fall the EPA announced it was considering tighter clean-air standards, involving, specifically, limits on small particules and ozone. Since then a number of groups has emerged from the shadows of private-sector power to fight the EPA on behalf of the moneymen in polluting industries. They are waging an intense lobbying and PR campaign to prevent cleaner air from becoming a reality. The campaign relies on stealth and obfuscation, and involves the usual assortment of dishonest ads, phony front groups with Orwellian names (in Florida the Florida Coalition for Clean Air is opposing cleaner air), scientists-for-hire and mega-dollar PR flacks. For example: * The Air Policy Standards Coalition, an umbrella organization created last year by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. The Coalition consists of over 600 companies and trade associations, each expected to give from $5,000 to $100,000 to the cause. The money is buying TV, radio and newspaper ads to sway the public, and paying lobbyists to sway Congress. * The Foundation for Clean Air Progress, which is opposed to clean air progress. The foundation is a creation of the American Petroleum Institute and PR agency behemoth (and veteran green-washer) Burson-Marsteller. Members include such notable tree-huggers as the Asphalt Institute and the American Trucking Associations. * National Environmental Strategies, an anti-environmental consulting firm that was founded by Republican bigwig Haley Barbour and National Mining Association lobbyist Marc Himmelstein. * Citizens for a Sound Economy, funded by industry, conservative foundations and flush members. The group's chairman, C. Boyden Gray was a White House counsel to George Bush. * The Annapolis Center, a "scientific think-tank" opposing tighter air standards. The center was started by the National Association of Manufacturers and is funded by polluters, including electric utilities and oil refiners. The center's gang of compliant scientists has been finding -- or rather, inventing -- fault with the EPA's scientific studies. Richard Rue, Annapolis Center vice president, told Gannett News Service that it was "laughable" to suggest that scientists could "be bought off by industry." Fortunately we have the example of the tobacco industry's white-smocked doxies to remind us that scientific integrity can be bought and sold like widgets, and that wholesale quantities are available when the PR requirements prove sufficiently grave. And in this case the PR requirements are very grave indeed. Left to their own devices most people might actually choose to have cleaner air. The benighted masses might even agree that government has a role in forcing corporations to behave. Given the masses' tedious expectations of a relatively clean environment, the polluters' PR machine has before it a substantial task. The trick is to convince the public that clean air isn't worth the trouble. There is for instance the tried-and-true Threat-to-the-American-way warning in the ludicrous claim that the EPA was planning to ban back-yard barbecues. (Earlier this year when EPA chief Carol Browner went to Capitol Hill to defend the proposed standards before a room of hostile Republican lawmakers -- and hostile lobbyists -- representatives from Citizens for a Sound economy were outside distributing bumper stickers that said, "Tell the EPA that Barbecuing is Not a Crime!") The lobbyists must have been tickled to see the media pass along -- free of charge -- this blatant propaganda lie. Nearly as outrageous in the campaign against clean air are the inflated claims of hypothetical expense. Citizens for a Sound Economy claims implementation of the new standards will cost $200 billion per year. The American Petroleum Institute gives a figure of $7 billion just for Chicago. The EPA, on the other hand, suggests the annual cost will be from $6.5 billion to $8.5 billion. The EPA's figures may be low, but industry's certainly are high. To evaluate these numbers we might recall that in 1990 when the EPA proposed reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions, industry claimed the cost would be $1,500 per ton. EPA said $450 to $600. The actual cost? Less than $100. Industry invents and spreads these inflated costs in order to convince us that the price of health is too high, that the enormous expenses will kill off progress, that modern industrial society will collapse beneath the regulatory weight, and that before long we will be returned to primordial conditions. If the EPA has its way it is just a matter of time, I guess, before we are wearing buckskin thongs, foraging for berries and eating squirrels we've killed with blunt rocks lashed to sticks. Some would argue that, even if the EPA's figures are correct, the benefits of a clean-up don't justify the expenditure. It is at this point we need to keep in mind the human costs of dirty air. There are, for instance those 60,000 killed every year. (The Natural Resources Defense Council figure is 64,000.) And every year 250,000 children suffer from respiratory disorders, including aggravated asthma, caused by polluted air. And, every year, 33 million children are exposed to harmful levels of ozone. The EPA says the new standards will prevent, every year, 60,000 cases of bronchitis and 9,000 hospital admissions. Industry, and its mouthpieces in the business press, likes to discount the deleterious side effects of "progress." An American Petroleum Institute official said that people "actually seem to adapt to" smog. Richard Brimisch, vice-president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, told Congress, "The effects of ozone are not that serious. I hate to say that. But what we are talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent. That's not really a health effect." On days with high ozone levels, hospitals see twice as many patients with respiratory ailments, but this, apparently, is not a "health effect." Nor is the suffering of those 250,000 children. We are already paying the costs of dirty air and those costs are too high. The statements of account come not only in reduced quality of life but also more literally in medical bills. This suits industry just fine. They make a dangerous mess and we pay the doctors to bandage the wounds. And when we demand that industry clean up after itself -- something we expect of, say, 7-year-olds -- it trots out reams of murky cost-benefit analyses and tells us we can't afford to provide cleaner air to those 60,000, to those 250,000, to those 33 million. The cost-benefit analysis, for those who haven't heard capital's latest catch-phrase, attempts to justify regulatory permissiveness by quantifying for an amoral market the value of human life and health. It is a vile enterprise and should repel anyone who values something more than the accumulation of excess boodle. The polluters know that some of us do value people over profits and that some of us can't be terrorized by predictions of doom. And they don't expect everybody to be fooled by the barbecue claim. They know there are more sophisticated types out there, people who can be bamboozled only by higher ideology. To fool this crowd, industry relies on its think-tanks. At the think-tanks laissez-faire theologians sing plainchant to the Glory of the Market and pen elaborate denunciations of Gnosticism, Democratic Socialism, or whatever heresy seems most likely to usurp the Cult of Mammon's power over the masses. The most prominent of these institutions is the Heritage Foundation. Early in July, as the time approached for the EPA to issue the new standards, the troglodytes at Heritage released a report, "Can No One Stop The EPA?" The report is mostly standard stuff: it says the science is bad, the costs are too high, blah,blah,blah... But here and there in the report the damp little nose of a primitive idea actually emerges from the verbiage and footnotes. Sprinkled in the report are some intriguing phrases: the clerics refer to the EPA's "unelected appointees" and "unelected Federal regulators." The implication in these phrases is that the EPA rules are being foisted onto us undemocratically. We should recognize this immediately as a threat-to-the-American-way allegation. It is more sophisticated than its country cousin (the EPA-Wants-to-Ban-Barbecue allegation) but is equally specious. After years of the Reagan/Gingrich rollback we are familiar by now with the conservatives' claim that unelected bureaucrats in Washington are running the country in a manner contrary to the will of people. It is, according to the myth, even done in a manner contrary to the national interest. According to the Holy Writ, FDR begat the tyrannical bureaucracy, which has metastasized and now sucks the very lifeblood of Main Street America. This fairy tale is expressed cleanly in the Heritage report: "As this regulatory leviathan continues to grow, states and localities face increasingly onerous constraints on their constitutional freedom to determine for themselves what is best for their communities." The report then quotes an anti-regulatory screed from the Wall Street Journal, which claimed that "the EPA begins to run a city's economy, with help from lawyers suing on behalf of the Sierra Club and other elites." (Heritage quotes the WSJ, and the WSJ often quotes Heritage; this sort of intellectual inbreeding among Big Money's apologists might explain the alarming rate of cretinism among the progeny.) Note the subtle Orwellian construction here: "the Sierra Club and other elites." If you're a stickler for the dictionary definition of a word, you might still believe that the term "elite" best describes the few who own the vast majority of stocks and who thereby profit the most from pollution. You might not have guessed that most power in this country is held by granola-munching backpackers and aficionados of home-dried fruit. The WSJ/Heritage use of the word elite is as dishonest as the names chosen to hide the true goals of industry's anti-environmental front groups. Equally dishonest is the claim that the EPA is "undemocratic." The constant whining about "undemocratic" forces at work in the vast evil bureaucracy, is, at the very least, hypocritical: we never heard them whine that Ed Meese was unelected, or Clarence Thomas, or Nancy Raygun's astrologer. The complaining also suggests that a civics lesson is in order. True, the dreaded "appointed regulators" who run the EPA weren't elected. But they do answer to elected officials and their job is to implement laws passed by elected officials. This makes the EPA far more democratic than the private sector. Kansas City Star business columnist Jerry Heaster, in a column aping the Heritage/WSJ party-line, wrote of "appointed bureaucrats unaccountable to the voters." As if the companies doing the polluting were accountable to voters! They aren't, of course. They are accountable only to shareholders, whose interests are often at odds with those of the larger electorate. The lobbyists fighting the new clean-air standards represent the authoritarian private sector's continued assault on the marginally democratic public sector. It is true that the public sector is so compromised by corporate funding that it scarcely merits the term "democracy" but it is all we have. And in spite of the private sector's attempts to prevent it, from time to time the commonweal is actually served and the people score a small victory. One such small victory was the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970 by those elected officials known as Congress and signed into law by that elected official known as the President. To hear the right prattle on at length about the alleged threat to democracy posed by environmental regulations you might almost think that Congress passed the Clean Air Act over the objections of the people, who presumably prefer high concentrations of soot and toxins in the air. That act charges the EPA with evaluating the air quality standards every five years. The last such evaluation was in 1987. Since there may be conservatives out there whose grasp of math is as tenuous as their grasp of civics, I will do the math: 1987 was 10 years ago. There should have been an assessment five years later (that's 1992) but it was skipped. President Bush, like his predecessor, didn't take too seriously his sworn duty to uphold the laws. Dan Quayle's corporate flunkies on the White House Council on Competitiveness nixed the EPA evaluation at the request of the American Petroleum Institute. Democracy is easy to subvert when you have friends in high places. The most recent evaluation of the standards, the one that led to the stricter counts for ozone and particulate matter, was initiated only after the American Lung Association sued the EPA and a federal court ordered the agency to obey the law. (On the right they call this "judicial activism".) The Clinton Administration moved as slowly as possible to develop the new standards, with much of the foot-dragging provided by industry lackeys in the cabinet, especially by Lloyd Bentsen, the oilman, and the late Ron Brown, who traveled the globe seeking opportunities for big contributors. Also, the President had to keep in mind the soft money contributions to the Democratic party from polluters such as Arco and Southern California Edison. The new standards already show the signs of such corporate influence. Many EPA scientists wanted tougher standards instead of the modest tightening that survived the political process. Cities don't have to submit compliance plans until 2002 and don't have to actually comply until 2012. Indeed the new regulations actually represent something of a partial victory for the polluters. But in this era of rampant deregulation, with corporate lobbyists writing reform legislation, industry smells the blood of the modest regulatory state and seems intent on a feeding frenzy. The new clean-air standards will have to approved by Congress and you can be sure the vote-buying campaign will be the ugliest we've seen since NAFTA. And we are certain to be treated to more PR nonsense: claims that the EPA is Stalinist, that Fourth of July barbecues will be outlawed, that the common folk are an elite, even, as the Heritage Foundation claimed, that the EPA regulations will make pollution worse. Nothing they come up with should surprise us, for we already know that no lie is too foul for the foul-air lobby.

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