Op-ed: Failing to Regulate Environmental Toxins is not Fiscally Responsible

An op-ed response to proposed federal laws and regulations

A lifelong environmental activist, teacher, business owner, and writer, Barbara Jarmoska is the founder and president of Freshlife, a natural products supermarket in Williamsport, PA. Barb serves on the Board of Directors of the Responsible Drilling Alliance (RDA), a grassroots group based in Lycoming County. Contact information is available on her web site: www.Road-2-Health.com.

by Barbara Jarmoska

When it comes to regulating the process of hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Water Drinking Act, federal regulators are handcuffed by exemptions granted to the gas industry in 2005. However, the EPA stepped up to the plate on air quality last week and proposed a new set of regulations that would offer additional protections, particularly to those of us living in heavy drilling areas atop the Marcellus and other shale plays.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition wasn’t happy about the proposed regulations, and coalition president Kathryn Klaber claimed, “This sweeping set of potentially unworkable regulations represents an overreach…”. The gas industry  summarized the proposals with bullet points that all began with the verb “Forces”.  The industry’s choice of verbs was notable, evidence that gas industry “best management practices” do not include voluntary reductions in air emissions.  Thus, even before reading the proposed regulations, I got the impression that EPA is trying to tighten things up.

They are – and kudos to federal regulators for doing their job and stepping into the fray on this enormously challenging health issue. Although there are critical gaps in the EPA proposal, it’s certainly a move in the right direction.

The proposed regulations, if passed (and that’s a big “if”) are especially needed in PA where emissions from gas drilling are currently viewed by DEP on a single site and not a collective impact basis. This fact will become increasingly troubling as the number of gas wells continues to grow. In addition, Governor Corbett’s recently released Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission proposals all but overlooked the entire problem of air quality in it’s final recommendations.  The PA constitution guarantees citizens the right to clean air and water, but that right is being grossly ignored these days. Local governments have no power to regulate air quality.  RDA provided written testimony during DEP’s public comment period on air quality, but we have yet to see if state regulations will be tightened. If PA citizens aren’t going to get needed help from our state regulators – we certainly need all the help we can get from the feds.

Looking to states where significant drilling has already taken place does not bode well for PA’s air quality. In Texas, where the terrain is flat and a constant wind blows at 9 mph or more, air quality in the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex now violates existing EPA standards. Cases of asthma in children living there has risen from 7 to 25% over the past several years of heavy drilling. In PA, where the mountains and valleys form significant air inversion pockets, we will all be breathing the VOCs, methane and other gas industry emissions much longer, increasing total exposure, increasing risk.

Among other proposed regulations, the EPA is asking for reductions of 25 – 30% of cancer-causing, birth-defect-promoting, climate-changing, and brain-damaging (neurotoxic) pollutants:

  • VOCs – 540,000 tons released annually:  EPA proposes a reduction of 25 percent.
  • Methane – 3.4 million tons released annually, which is equal to 65 million metric tons of
  • Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), EPA proposes a reduction of about 26 percent.
  • Air Toxics –38,000 tons released annually, EPA proposes a reduction of nearly 30 percent.

The sheer volume of these pollutants, unleashed into the environment on an annual basis, is disconcerting to say the least. These reductions are not harsh demands, are already being opposed by the oil and gas industry, as evidenced by their quick, negative response.

This brings us to the question of whether or not these proposed regulations will make it through the political gauntlet in Washington and actually become law. One look at what is happening in the federal government at this moment is deeply troublesome, and does not bode well for EPA’s intentions.

No discussion of the validity and future of the new proposed EPA regulations would be complete without looking at a bill currently in the federal house, H.R. 2584.  As part of the Interior and Environment spending bill, some lawmakers are pushing a series of amendments that represent what may truly be the most egregious attack ever on our air, land, water and wildlife.  These environmental assaults come as a part of a spending bill containing more than three dozen anti-environment policy measures that have absolutely no place in a budget measure. They won’t save the taxpayers a penny and are nothing more than giveaways to various special interest polluters, including the oil and gas industry.

If enacted, lawmakers  would hope for (and no doubt get) headlines lauding their efforts to cut government spending. In truth, the threat to Americans’ lives and well-being would be increased as limits on harmful air pollution, pollution in sources of drinking water, extinction of animal and plant species (by denying Endangered Species Act protection) and a host of other dirty and dangerous provisions are included in this legislation.

The biggest polluters are cashing in on the current economic crisis as a way to decrease regulations affecting the health and well-being of all Americans. The debt ceiling debate is a part of this challenge. So is HB 2584, perhaps the worst such bill to date.

In managing my personal and business finances, I am nothing if not a fiscal conservative. However, I refuse to be fooled by the headlines and media pundits asking for my support of “fiscal responsibility” that comes at the hands of sacrifices to human and environmental health. In the end, such a plan is sheer folly and apt to end up costing taxpayers billions in years to come. We are being completely duped by deceptive headlines and half-truths. HB 2584 is no exception.

I applaud the EPA and the new proposed regulations. It is crucial to remember that they are just that – proposed. The opposition will no doubt rally its battle cry, including claims that the new regs are unfair, unpatriotic and come at a cost the American people can ill afford. Watch for  that cleverly crafted response.

What strange irony that the EPA has come to the table with new proposed regulations that would offer increased protection from polluters at the very time our legislators are poised to vote on HB 2584, a bill that dissects and deletes protections already in place.

Corporations are using the current fiscal crisis and budget cut demands to their distinct advantage. They may well take that tactic with these new EPA proposed regulations. We desperately need to cut wasteful spending. Making it easier for corporate polluters to dump the toxic byproducts of their operations into our air, water and soil is not the answer.

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