Dear Editor: The Dec. 6 issue of “Science” opens with an editorial that is especially timely given the health threat posed by the Colbert power plant. (“Science” is the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.) It helps to answer a question I've heard frequently during the last few weeks, “Why does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Georgia Environmental Protection Division allow them to burn railroad ties?”
The burning of creosote-treated, railroad crossties here in Madison County is not just a local aberration. It is representative of policies that now affect all Americans, and the cancerous growth of these policies continues each day. Skipping a page of details, the editorial concludes with, “The EPA's proposed transparency rule does not ensure research rigor or improve transparency. It unquestionably excludes key science from policy-making.” When the EPA's political bureaucracy promotes rules to silence its health scientists for the purpose of increasing corporate profits, it is time to take a hard look at what has gone wrong.
Recent decades have seen dramatic changes in the way we regulate industries that affect our health. We have entered the era of fox and chickens regulation. Chicken processing plants hire their own meat inspectors, drug manufacturers conduct their own clinical trials, and industries that profit from burning crossties provide the EPA with the data needed for regulating power plants. The EPA conveniently reacts by ending its prohibition against burning crossties.
The exclusion of science from policy has a long history of slow, but steady, progression. Part of the story begins in the 1950s and 60s. The tobacco industry was our country's largest spender on lobbying and elections. However, the time came when smoking was so obviously bad for our health that even politicians could no longer be bought. The tobacco industry stopped spending on lobbying, but it didn't stop spending. It began financing think-tanks and other organizations devoted to persuading voters that all federal government regulation is bad. Attacking regulation in general, without mentioning smoking, worked. Since then, attempts by health officials to curtail smoking have been consistently derailed. For example, an effort to require cigarette manufacturers to include more graphic warnings on their packaging was a done deal as far as the Food and Drug Administration was concerned — and then it wasn't. The extraordinary success of the tobacco industry's campaign, with its strategy of attacking all regulation, has caused a lot of collateral damage.
Today, we must remember what the air quality of our major cities was like when the EPA was created. We must remember the time when rivers in our major cities were so polluted they sometimes caught fire. We must take note of the fact that our neighboring power plant is being managed by the multinational corporation that ran the Flint, Michigan water system. That corporation, Veolia, was aware of the imminent danger of lead poisoning before it occurred — silently aware.
Remembering these things reveals a lesson for us in our troubles with the Colbert power plant. We must resist politicians who court our vote by promising to dismantle the EPA. EPA regulations do not put us at a competitive disadvantage. The European Union's EPA is much stricter with no evidence of economic harm. (For example, it prohibits burning crossties in power plants.)
This January, the EPA's political bureaucracy will release a supplemental rule to their proposed transparency rule. There will be an open period for public comment — an opportunity for everyone to tell the EPA to return to using the best science to protect our health and the environment.