by Linda Noonan
I traveled to Washington, D.C., in late April to testify at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing on President Trump’s executive order of Feb. 27, which establishes the “policy of the United States to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people.” I was there to make exactly the opposite point: that safeguards on our public health are the country’s moral responsibility, not a regulatory burden.
The White House is hell-bent on attacking vital protections put in place by the EPA over the past 50 years that do not simply care for the environment, but protect those of us who live in it from dangerous pollution like mercury, arsenic and soot from power plant smokestacks, acid rain, sulfur dioxides, radon, and pesticides that threaten food and water. Attacking the Clean Air Act and overturning the Clean Power Plan would put profit for wealthy polluters and special interests first, allowing them free rein to dump toxins into our air and water.
Environmental safeguards protect our health, conserve resources and save lives – benefits that far exceed the cost of compliance, year after year. The Clean Air Act alone prevents more than 160,000 premature deaths and 1.7 million asthma attacks every year, delivering up to $90 in public health benefits for every dollar invested in clean air. Without it, our workers would lose another 13 million days on the job to sickness annually.
None of the provisions in these executive orders will significantly reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil, but all of them were at the top of industry’s wish list. This administration has no qualms about rigging the system for polluters and leaving ordinary Americans to foot the bill when it comes to the impacts of more pollution and worsening climate change.
Let us be clear – these cuts are not cost-saving measures. They do not reduce federal spending overall, but will be made to increase our military spending. We are trading lives for weapons. If we as a nation can’t afford to protect our environment, preserve our public health, and care for the most vulnerable, then what exactly are we defending?
Who stands to benefit when we allow power plants to dump poison into the air we breathe and the water we drink? Why, when it is clear that more than two-thirds of Americans want to see the EPA’s powers preserved or strengthened, would our elected officials rush to strip them?
Those who profit from ditching these safeguards are not the ones who live down-wind or down-stream from these plants. “Do unto others downwind as you would have those upwind do unto you” should be our guiding principle, but it is not. While pollution knows no boundaries and puts all of us at risk, those who suffer the greatest are the ones closest to the source – people of color, the poor, women, children, and the medically-fragile – those least able to get out of harm’s way. We have a moral obligation to insure that everyone has access to clean air, regardless of their race, their economic status, or their political affiliation.
We have put the economic interest of corporate polluters ahead of public health. We are trading lives for profit.
Here in Philadelphia, the asthma rate is 21.5 percent – more than twice the national average. The Nicetown section of our city, just a few miles down Germantown Avenue from Chestnut Hill, has more fine particulate pollution than 78 percent of neighborhoods around the country. One in three children in Nicetown has asthma. One in three. A child in Nicetown is about four times as likely to have asthma as an average American child. Nicetown is 85 percent black.
Our ZIP codes should not be our destiny. Our ZIP codes should not determine our health, but most of the millions of Americans living near oil, coal, and gas facilities who remain exposed to asthma and cancer-causing chemicals are unable to move out of the line of fire.
Every major faith tradition instructs its followers to care for those at the margins – the young, the old, the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. We do that by lifting up and protecting the sacred air and water that has been given to us as a gift. It has been said that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” (Gandhi).
To be great we must do good. What is good for our environment is good for our public health. What is good for our public health is good for our most vulnerable. Doing right by our children, our elderly, the medically-fragile, and people of color not only makes economic sense, it makes moral sense.
The outrage over these devastating decisions and the threatened budget cuts have resulted in public outcry and mobilization. Countless ordinary Americans new to activism and civic engagement have risen up to march, to email, phone, and meet with their elected officials, to testify, and to turn out. The messages have gotten through to Congress, which last week passed a short-term budget deal that cuts EPA’s budget by only 1 percent, in contrast to the unconscionable 31 percent proposed by President Trump. Activism and civic engagement work.
The Rev. Linda Noonan is senior pastor at Chestnut Hill United Church. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org