EPA Under Fire from Congress

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot”

The hardest task of being human is to stand far enough outside of us to see our true place in and on this planet. As we hurry between appointments, schools and different jobs, our focus is on the moment, the task at hand. Rarely do we pause to consider the long-range consequences of any of our actions.

The exhaust from our vehicle as we careen toward the day-care center. The origin and processing of the fuel we pour into our empty gas tanks. The source of the meat, fish, poultry and vegetables pulled from the shelves of our markets and used to feed our families. The full environmental costs of the plastic bottle from which we drink our “designer” water.

Occasionally, we snap to consciousness. An event — a major oil spill, a toxic flow of some gunk into the ocean, a discovery of percolates in our water — shocks us from our somnambulism into a course of action. We become aware; we become warriors for our cause; we stand tall in the name of our planet.

And then, we drift back to sleep for a while, and relegate the task of protecting our air, water, and earth to one of the many agencies we have put in place for oversight.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the largest of those organizations. Founded on Dec. 2, 1970, the EPA’s mission is simple: to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment — air, water, and land — upon which life depends.

In recent weeks, a partisan stew has been brewing in Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) have joined with other opponents of EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases, and are circulating a draft bill called the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011. Their goal is to undermine and limit the EPA’s authority to impose limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act is a federal law covering the entire country, established in 1970. It incorporated earlier state laws and expanded its role in oversight. The origin of concern can be traced to a thick cloud of air pollution in Donora, Pa., that killed 20 people and sickened 6,000 of the town’s 14,000 people in 1948. Two years later, more than 3,000 people died during London’s “Killer Fog.” In both those incidents, the pollutants were visible — no one could see. Today’s gases are for the most part invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.

As we begin to understand more about how our human activities affect both climate and the quality of the air we breathe, the work of the EPA becomes increasingly crucial for our protection.

Arguments over climate change are — at this point — tired. Whatever the terminology, the radical change in weather — category 5 hurricanes and cyclones, winter storms of historic proportions, prolonged droughts and unimaginable floods — cannot be ignored. The devastating melt of the arctic ice cap is an affect of a change in climate that is reality. Just ask a polar bear.

If profit stands above protection of the sphere we inhabit, then we are doomed. We are not rulers of the earth, but inhabitants of the earth. It is our task to protect the planet’s biodiversity, insure that our children and theirs can drink clean water and breathe fresh and pure air. Our survival is based on our ability to enhance — not destroy — the land on which we stand.

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