“Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so, and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cisterns are wealthier than the rest of us. – Wendell Berry

Smog covering Birmingham

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2011 report on America’s most polluted cities is out.

The State of the Air 2011 shows that the air quality in many places has improved during 2007-2009. Still, over 154 million people—just over one half the nation—suffer pollution levels that are too often dangerous to breathe. Despite great progress, air pollution lingers as a widespread and dangerous reality. It is important to note this progress, even as some seek to weaken the public health law that has improved the air we breathe since 1970, the Clean Air Act.

According to the American Lung Association report, out of 277 metro areas,  the Birmingham metro region was the 8th most polluted city for particle pollution in the nation. It ranked as the 21st most polluted for overly high ozone levels. Amazingly, it scored an F’s on all three levels of analysis. Montgomery County did not fair much better by scoring consistent D’s. In fact, each major metro area in Alabama scored F’s for high ozone levels, except Montgomery with their D.

Note, that my Congressman Mike Rogers is one of those determined to weaken eliminate our clean air and other public health laws and their enforcement. He and his fellow Republicans were praised by Lance Brown, executive director of PACE, this past week in an opinion piece appearing in the Montgomery Advertiser for “helping lead the effort to require sensible regulation and to rein in over-aggressive action” i.e. allowing our corporate overlords to pee in our common cisterns.

According to the Mr. Brown, Montgomery county has “no problem” with high ozone.  Although the American Lung Association gives Montgomery a D for unhealthily high ozone levels and a D for overly high particle pollution, Mr. Brown argues the EPA is “unnecessarily” raising the standards.

The PACE opinion includes this telling insight of perspective:

EPA Administrator Jackson, like all regulators, always offers some level of justification for new rules. In this case, EPA believes tougher ozone limits will produce public health benefits.

While improved public health is always a laudable goal, it is just as important to pursue solutions that also foster economic health, not fall backward with new restrictions on recruitment and growth. Stemming excessive and capricious regulation is part of that solution. That way, the River Region and other U.S. communities can all breathe a little easier.

Is public health merely a “laudable goal?” Public health should not be some secondary or tertiary concern for elected officers but rather a chief goal. I remember some where that the calling of our civil leaders is to “establish justice,” and “promote the general welfare” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

What are the consequences of being a resident of the 8th most polluted city for its residents?:

Breathing high levels of particle pollution day in and day out also can be deadly, as landmark studies in the 1990s conclusively showed. Chronic exposure to particle pollution can shorten life by one to three years. Other impacts range from premature births to serious respiratory disorders, even when the particle levels are very low.

Year-round exposure to particle pollution has also been linked to:

  • increased hospitalization for asthma attacks for children living near roads with heavy truck or trailer traffic;
  • slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers;
  •  significant damage to the small airways of the lungs;
  •  increased risk of dying from lung cancer; and
  •  increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.68

The evidence warns that the death toll is high. Although no national tally exists, California just completed an analysis that estimates that 9,200 people in California die annually from breathing particle pollution.  An updated computer modeling of deaths from pollution caused by coal-fired power plant emissions, exposures which are more predominant outside of California, estimates roughly 13,200 deaths from particle pollution in the Midwest, New England and the Southeast.

Research into the health risks of 65,000 women over age 50 found that those who lived in areas with higher levels of particle pollution faced a much greater risk of dying from heart disease than had been previously estimated. Even women who lived within the same city faced differing risks depending on the annual levels of pollution in their neighborhood.

The Environmental Protection Agency released the most thorough review of the current research on particle pollution in December 2009. The Agency had engaged a panel of expert scientists, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, to help them assess the evidence, in particular research published between 2002 and May 2009. EPA concluded that particle pollution caused multiple, serious threats to health.

Similar evidence exists for the health consequences for high ozone levels.

The vast majority of Birmingham particle pollution and ozone is derived from coal-fired power plants, not fireworks or  as implied by PACE.  According to a Birmingham watchdog group,

These old, outdated coal-fired power plants have been exempt from modern pollution controls due to a loophole in the Clean Air Act. Back in the 70s, driven by pressure from industry lobbyists, a “loophole” was created in the Clean Air Act by elected officials that benefited the coal and electricity industry greatly. Promising that they would soon be retired, many old coal-fired plants were exempt from requirements to install modern pollution controls, often referred to as the “grandfathered” plants.Data source: US EPA, 2008

Many power companies exploited this “grandfathered” status, kept their plants open, and increased their emissions significantly over the years.

While strides have been made we certainly need to continue our vigilance in being good stewards and insuring clean air and waters. As stated by Wendell Berry,

Sooner or later. governments will have to recognize that if the land [and air] does not prosper, nothing else can prosper for very long. We can have no industry or trade or wealth or security if we don’t uphold the health of the land [and air] and the people’s work. . .

It is commonly understood that governments are instituted to provide certain protections that citizens individually cannot provide for themselves. . . Our governments have only occasionally recognized the need of land [and air] and people to be protected against economic violence. It is true that economic violence is not always as swift, and it is rarely as bloody, as violence of war, but it can be devastating nonetheless. Acts of economic aggression can destroy a landscape or a community or the center of a town  or city, and they routinely do so. . . Because as individuals or even as communities we cannot protect ourselves against these aggressions, we need our state and national government to protect us.

It appears that we have fallen into the habit of compromising on issues that should not, and in fact cannot, be compromised.  I have and idea that a large number of us, including even a large number of politicians, believe that it is wrong to destroy the Earth [and air.] But we have powerful political opponents who insist that an Earth-destroying economy is justified by freedom and profit. And so we compromise by agreeing to permit the destruction only of parts of the Earth, or permit the Earth to be destroyed a little at a time — like the famous three-legged pig that was too well loved to be eaten all at once. [“and air” additions mine]

The high calling of businesses and private enterprise is stewardship which includes just care for the surrounding communities, people, land, water, and air. As we seek economic prosperity for Alabama, let us not so narrowly limit our vision and measure of judgment but rightly call on our elected officials to pursue the common good and demand public justice. Maybe we need to modify our State creed a little:

I believe in Alabama, a state dedicated to a faith in God and the enlightenment of mankind; to a democracy that safeguards the liberties of each citizen and to the conservation of her youth, her ideals, and her soil [and air].