Rarefied air

February 01, 2005

THERE MUST BE something to that expression about elites existing in a rarefied atmosphere. Surely corporate and political leaders who have the power to substantially clean up the nation's polluted skies wouldn't keep refusing to do so if they and their families had to breathe the same gunky air as everybody else.

The lives of 24,000 Americans -- including 687 Marylanders -- are cut short every year because of damage caused by emissions from utility smokestacks, according to federal estimates. Millions of other Americans are afflicted with asthma from the pollutants. None of the fish in Maryland's rivers and lakes or most of those elsewhere is safe to eat because of mercury cycled through the water from the polluted air.

Technology is available to clean up the coal-fired power plants causing this mess. And even putting the value of life and health aside, there's a growing economic argument to be made for requiring that technology to be applied.

And yet President Bush wants to loosen existing standards. His misleadingly named "Clear Skies" legislation would delay by 10 years requirements for reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, the key components of smog; set the same timetable for mercury reductions; and make no demands at all on the reduction of carbon dioxide, considered the chief culprit in global warming.

Older power plants would continue to be exempted from 30-year-old pollution controls, although they contribute more than half of the harmful emissions. Further, states would be discouraged, if not prohibited, from moving on their own to force those old power plants to clean up. Maryland legislators have targeted seven such utility plants in this state still spewing poisonous junk into the air because nobody says they can't.

Opponents were able to block the Clear Skies bill during Mr. Bush's first term. But as debate resumes this year with additional Republicans in congressional ranks, the outcome is less certain.

What's more, maintaining a stalemate on the issue isn't getting the air any cleaner. The president has essentially refused to enforce current standards he doesn't support.

All involved should take a deep breath and consider what's at stake. The administration argues that pollution controls drive up energy costs and eliminate jobs. How many jobs is a life worth? How many cases of asthma are acceptable to keep down utility bills?

But those are false choices. Developing and applying technology to clean up the environment provides economic dividends of its own, not to mention the savings in health costs.

It's time for leaders on all sides of the debate to get their heads out of the clouds and make Mr. Bush's promise of clear skies something more than an ironic joke.

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