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Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Ethical Side of EPA's Proposed Clean Air Regs

Coal-fired power plant in Conemaugh, PA   (Photo by Stefan
Schlöhmer on ens-newswire.com)
I read a great op-ed piece last week that blows away the smokescreen spewed by detractors of the EPA’s newly proposed clean air regulations. The op-ed, by Christina Simeone of the Harrisburg-based advocacy group PennFuture, explained how market forces, rather than a mythical war on coal, are chipping away at the demand for coal.
That same day I also read an editorial in Scranton’s Times-Tribune that laid out much the same argument as Simeone’s op-ed. I entirely agree that there are valid economic reasons that we should not kid our selves into believing that that a liberal cabal is plotting to eradicate the coal industry.
But I’m also thinking about the human aspect of why we have to seriously wean our country from reliance on coal. Writing this post on Father’s Day, I’m thinking of the strong sense of social justice that my father impressed upon me. Because the reality of coal-fired power plants is that, other than the newest plants, they spew harmful contaminants into the air we all breathe. And in many cases, the people who live closest downwind to the older coal-fired plants have higher rates of respiratory illnesses than people in upwind towns. The people who are most likely to live in the downwind fallout zone of those older plants typically live there because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. They may be economically disadvantaged because of their race, their education, or simply because they are the nth generation of their family living and working in that town. Regardless of their situation or background, they have a right to breathe clean air, just like any other American has the right.
Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the environmental rights amendment, states:
"The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
EPA’s newly proposed clean air regulations, therefore, are entirely consistent with the right to breathe clean air that was guaranteed by the passage of PA’s environmental rights amendment in 1971. The argument that clean air regulations are killing PA’s coal industry has been debunked. Rather, if the newly proposed federal regulations are ratified, they will help to ensure the health of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, including coal industry workers and residents of coal mining towns.
I imagine some libertarians might argue that if the demand for coal is weakening because cleaner energy technologies are actually cheaper then the free market should be allowed to make adjustments without regulatory intervention. But surely there will be cheapskate coal plant operators intent on running their plant into the ground to squeeze out every last nickel from of their investment, regardless of how many of its neighbors it sickens or kills. The free market relies on rational decisions. But deciding to continue to pollute without regard for the human casualties of your pollution is neither a rational choice nor an ethical choice.
Portland, PA, coal-fired generating station. In 2011, Greenpeace reported that pollution from this plant was responsible for 30 deaths annually, as well as 54 heart attacks, 500 asthma attacks, and scores of hospital admissions and emergency room visits.
The reality is that trying to protect the coal industry is simply enabling a behavior that is destructive to everyone living and working downwind from any of the older coal plants. Without enactment of the EPA’s proposed clean air regulations, we are giving the operators of those plants a free pass to continue to pollute. That free pass forces someone else to subsidize their damaging behavior (in the form of the increased healthcare costs of downwind residents) rather than making the responsible party pay the external costs of their own archaic business model.
And this argument is only about the health and healthcare costs of the people downwind of coal plants. I haven’t even touched on the effect of coal plant emissions on our planet’s atmosphere. That will be another post for another day.