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Commentary: A New Year for the Earth?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2010 - This holiday season, many Americans will be making New Year's resolutions for healthier lifestyles -- vowing to exercise more and eat healthier foods, and swearing away bad habits like smoking. Sadly, while we can do many things to maintain good health, we face a number of unseen threats to our health that we can do little about.

Many pollutants burden our health from all fronts every day. Soot and smog remain a problem here in Missouri, where, according to the Clean Air Task Force, 293 people die and 456 more have heart attacks every year because of fine particle pollution.1 This air pollution also means that more of the 306,000 Missourians who suffer from asthma2 are rushed to the emergency room every year.

Mercury and lead pollution is in the air, and falls into our waterways where it then seeps into the food chain and puts children at risk of brain damage and developmental disorders. In fact, one in every six women nationwide has enough mercury in her body to put her baby at risk of neurological damage should she become pregnant. Additionally, unchecked global warming is threatening our health with the spread of infectious diseases, an increase in asthma attacks and respiratory disease, and more heat-related deaths from record high temperatures.

All of these pollutants share a common culprit: every year coal-fired power plants and polluting industrial facilities spew hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous pollution into our air and water, contaminating our environment and making us sick.

Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is stepping up to protect our health by requiring that big polluters clean up their act. Over the next three years, the EPA is planning to issue new standards to cut dangerous pollution – including mercury pollution, soot, smog, and other things that contribute to global warming. These standards could save thousands of lives each year, prevent millions of incidents of illness, and avoid many billions of dollars in health care costs.

But as the EPA is moving forward to clean our air, some of the biggest culprits, including coal and oil companies, are mounting a huge opposition effort and pushing the agency to weaken or block new life-saving standards.

What's worse, many of the pollution rules EPA is planning have already been put on hold for decades. For example, President George W. Bush's administration delayed cleanup standards for a variety of harmful pollutants, and even when standards were proposed, they were often so weak that courts found them unlawful and returned them to EPA for improvement.

Now, as the Obama administration has pledged to finally clean our air and protect public health, some of those same Bush-era EPA officials are lobbyists for the biggest coal companies, continuing their legacy of life-threatening delay. For example, after persuading the Bush administration to propose rules that actually increased air pollution when he worked at EPA, Jeffrey Holmstead lobbies for industry giants like St. Louis' own Arch Coal Inc., as well as Duke Energy Corp. and Edison Electric Institute. These corporate insiders have put our health at risk for too long; Missourians and all Americans deserve cleaner air and better health.

It's time to stop letting big coal and oil companies stand in the way of a healthier future. Current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson can protect our families and prioritize health and the environment. On Dec. 23, Jackson took a bold step in announcing EPA's new timeline for developing nationwide limits on global warming pollution from power plants. Her New Year's Resolution should now be to protect public health by issuing the strongest possible standards for global warming pollution, as well as for mercury, soot and smog. Just as Americans will resolve to improve their health this holiday, we hope Administrator Jackson will do so for the nation.

Ted Mathys is an advocate with Environment Missouri, a statewide nonprofit environmental advocacy group working for clean air, clean water and open space.

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