Birmingham’s struggle for clean air saves lives. Get involved!

Photo courtesy of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College

The ongoing fight for Clean Air in Birmingham is not finished.

There is a struggle brewing over Clean Air in Alabama and Washington.

Groups such as the American Lung Association, GASP and the Southern Environmental Law Center are advocating for stronger air pollution prevention rules that will protect tens of thousands of healthy and vulnerable populations of Americans and Alabamians who need to breathe clean air.

In sharp contrast, in Washington, as a result of deregulation fervor, there are efforts afoot to defund the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and repeal recently enacted clean air rules.

“U.S. Steel plant. Red-orange is characteristic color of steel plant emission.” – June 1972 – photo via Bhamwiki by LeRoy Woodson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Documerica” program

The question has to be asked. Does the Clean Air Act actually work?

The last major revision to the Clean Air Act was in 1990. The law was the top legislative conservation priority of then Republican President George H.W. Bush.

When President Bush signed the legislation on November 15th, 1990 into law, he said:

“This legislation isn’t just the centerpiece of our environmental agenda. It is simply the most significant air pollution legislation in our nation’s history, and it restores America’s place as the global leader in environmental protection.”

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set out to answer that question when they issued a peer-reviewed report on the effectiveness of the latest amendments to Clean Air Act . These were their findings.

Lives Saved
Birmingham Alabama
Photo by Larry O. Gay

According to the study, nationally the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 will have saved 4.2 million lives over 30 years.

That’s not a misprint. The revised 1990 law championed by President Bush will have saved as many people as the population of the state of Oregon.

By 2020, without major changes to the law’s implementation, annually nearly 240,000 lives will be saved… a number slightly more than the population of the entire city of Birmingham.

And that is just lives saved.

Included in the peer-reviewed study were avoided pollution related illnesses, visits to medical facilities and lost work and school days from 1990 to 2020. The numbers are mind-boggling.

Here is what the Clean Air Act prevented:

* 43.8 million cases of asthma exacerbation.
* 3.3 million heart attacks
* 2.1 Million hospital admissions
* 2.2 Million emergency room visits
* 313 million lost work days
* 74.5 million school days

Reduced air pollution equals lives saved. Also, when you calculate the economic savings from reduced medical costs and increased productivity at work and schools the Clean Air Act is a bargain. Best estimates peg the cost of the Clean Air Act by 2020 at $65 billion. The benefit in lives saved and increased productivity is guessed at an astounding $2 trillion.

All this does not take into account real tangible pollution prevention.

Locally, in Jefferson County, the implementation of the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air has reduced air pollution dramatically over the past two decades.

From the Jefferson County Department of Health Air Emissions Database, since 1996, Nitrogen Oxides (NOXs) which combines with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) to create ozone – have been reduced 75% (NOXs) and 96% (VOCs). These reductions occurred from 1996 to 2015.

Particulate matter which was not recorded until 2002, has reduced 58% for PM10 and 61% for PM 2.5.

Cleaner Air, Healthier Economy from Southern Environmental Law Center on Vimeo 

“Despite all this progress, respiratory issues continue to be a leading cause for admissions into Children’s of Alabama,” stated Ashley Lyerly, Regional Director of Public Policy at the American Lung Association (ALA).

Since January there has been an all out assault on the Clean Air Act by the new administration led by EPA’s new administrator Scott Pruitt.

During the first eight months, a 31% cut in EPA’s budget has been proposed. Administrator Pruitt has also directed the agency to review and challenge regulations that required cleaner automobiles and reduced power plants emissions.

One such regulation being challenged, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, has been in place since 2012. Since it’s implementation, Alabama’s mercury emissions went from 3,115 pounds in 2011 to 1,724 pounds in 2015.

“What’s happening now, is if you start rolling back on the Clean Air Act you are basically undercutting the intent of the Act, you are taking it back 10 years – taking it back 20 years,” stated Keith Johnston Managing Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Birmingham Office.

“The act has been around for 40 years. It has worked. Don’t take something that is working and undercut it,” Johnston added.

What you can do
Birmingham Alabama
GASP meeting in the early 1970s

In 1971, Birmingham was the first place the Clean Air Act was challenged. Today, despite remarkable advances, countless lives saved and tens of thousands of our fellow Americans still at risk from dirty air, there remain efforts to severely weaken the law.

ALA’s Lyerly summed up the current situation concerning air pollution in Washington, Congress and beyond.

“Our health protections are under attack. They really must be defended. The federal protections help “clean the air” we all breathe. We encourage Congress to fully fund the EPA and enforce the Clean Air Act.”

Like the young professionals and college students that started GASP 46 years ago, ordinary citizens need to get involved. Watch EPA and advocate for clean air. Take personal responsibility and do your own part for clean air in Birmingham.

And heed the prophetic words of President George H.W. Bush a year before the passage of the Amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990.

“Too many Americans continue to breathe dirty air. And political paralysis has plagued further progress against air pollution. We have to break this logjam…”

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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