Polluter Interests Have Been Spending Millions on Disinformation Campaigns

Janine Jackson interviewed David Baron about new pollution rules for the October 2 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript. To listen to the interview, click here.


Janine Jackson: “New Regulations on Smog Remain as Divisive as Ever.” That was the headline on a September 30 New York Times story which balanced what it called “concerns of lung doctors” that smog, or ozone, is a public health threat with industry claims that installing new equipment, in the reporter’s words, “could kneecap American manufacturing and threaten jobs across the country.” Three different industry sources were counterposed with a single representative of the American Lung Association.

But if the topic is harmful pollution, is the public really served by coverage that centers the views of the polluters? What’s a different way to talk about it? David Baron is managing attorney in the DC office of the group Earthjustice. His article “Smog Kills” appeared recently in Politico. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC; welcome to CounterSpin, David Baron.

David Baron: Thank you very much.

JJ: First of all, that smog is harmful to human health is not a contentious claim made by lung doctors. It’s widely scientifically established, isn’t it?

DB: There are literally thousands of studies that show that ozone, or smog, is dangerous to health, that it kills people, sends them to the hospital, triggers hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, and keeps kids and adults away from school and work. We know that this happens at levels way below the current standard adopted during the Bush administration, and that’s why we need a much stronger one now.

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New York Times (9/30/15): Smog rules “could kneecap American manufacturing”

JJ: If that’s the consensus, is it appropriate to go about setting a standard between what scientific consensus says is—not healthy, mind you, but less unhealthy—and what industry would prefer? Is that the way to go about it, sort of splitting the difference there?

DB: Absolutely not. The Clean Air Act requires that clean air standards be set based on one thing alone, and that is protection of health. Cost of implementing the standard can be considered later when you’re looking for ways to comply; but in setting the standards, the only lawful and appropriate consideration is what’s needed to protect health.

And here we have the nation’s leading medical organizations, from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association and the American Thoracic Society, all saying we need a standard of 60 parts per billion to protect people’s lungs. And yet, today, the Environmental Protection Agency is announcing a standard far above that, at 70 parts per billion—a standard that will allow thousands of deaths, thousands of hospitalizations and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks that would be avoided if EPA followed the advice of doctors instead of caving in to industry’s wild claims of cost of compliance.

JJ: I just want to underscore something that you just said: This doesn’t represent just a betrayal, as you put it, of the promise of the Clean Air Act; consideration of costs is actually illegal in setting clean air health standards.

DB: That was ruled more than 14 years ago by the United States Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, and this has long been established as the law of the land. And yet we’ve had industry spending millions and millions of dollars over the past several months, arguing that EPA and the Obama administration should violate the law and base its decision on the costs of meeting the standard.

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Not only is that illegal and indefensible, but it’s based on bogus claims of costs. There have now been two studies showing that the industry costs claims are wildly overblown and that, in fact, clean air standards that are stronger will provide important benefits to the public. Industry has just over the years repeatedly raised these claims that it will costs us too much to have healthy air, and they have repeatedly shown to be wrong.

JJ: Yes, I think the economic and racial aspects of this are often overlooked. An AP analysis of EPA data found that African-Americans are some 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution poses a health danger, and poor people as well more often live with the dirtiest utility plants. And so there is also a justice issue here.

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DB: There is. You know, science shows that ozone is dangerous to kids and to seniors and to people with asthma, and it shows that disproportionately African-American kids and minority kids have asthma. So when the EPA sets its standard that is too weak, these are the people who will suffer the most. For an administration that says it’s committed to environmental justice to set a standard that is too weak, that’s not where the medical professionals say it should be, is just indefensible.

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David Baron: “It’s sad that an issue of this importance, that affects literally all Americans, has gotten so little attention from our mainstream press.”

JJ: We are taping this on October 1, and you’ve told us a little bit about the current state of play, and the new standard that the EPA is going to release. What happens now? Is this set in stone at this point?

DB: Well, it is for a while. I think it is very likely that the standards are going to be challenged in court by those who want to enforce the law and want to make it clear that this standard is not protective of health, does not follow the advice of the nation’s leading medical societies, and it’s a betrayal of the Clean Air Act’s promise of clean air. So I think that’s probably where this is going to be headed next—to the courts—and hopefully we will see some change.

JJ: And helpful in that would be media coverage that would at least interrogate industry claims, instead of sort of saying it’s a “he said, she said” type of thing.

DB: That’s true, and the sad part about all of this is that we’ve got these wealthy corporate interests, polluter interests, that have been spending millions of dollars to saturate television and radio with disinformation campaigns about the standards, and the media have just been pretty quiet on this. When you look at the major media outlets, they’ve given almost no attention to this issue until just the last few days. It’s sad that an issue of this importance, that affects literally all Americans, has gotten so little attention from our mainstream press.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with David Baron, managing attorney with Earthjustice, online at Earthjustice.org. Thank you, David Baron, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: Thank you.

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