The Human And Financial Cost Of Pollution
Updated Oct 24, 2017
“In 2015, diseases caused by air, water and soil pollution were responsible for 9 million premature deaths, that is 16% of all global death. Exposures to contaminated air, water and soil kill more people than smoking, hunger, natural disasters, war, AIDS, or malaria.”
Nearly all of these deaths (92%) took place in poorer nations. In wealthier nations that have worked to reduce pollution, the benefits of pollution control far outweigh the costs. According to this Commission, the global financial costs of pollution are huge, totaling “$4.6 trillion per year—6.2% of global economic output”. The study reported that in the United States, air pollution control pays off at a rate of 30-1. Every dollar invested in air pollution control generates thirty dollars of benefits. Since 1970 the U.S. has invested about $65 billion in air pollution control and received about $1.5 trillion in benefits.
I strongly believe that sustainability management―or managing organizations to ensure they minimize their environmental impact―will come to be synonymous with competent management. One problem with a macro-analysis such as Lancet’s is that many of the costs of pollution control are incurred by specific firms and localities while the benefits are provided to an entire society. That is what has given rise to the myth that we must trade off economic growth against environmental protection. People learn through lore and stories, and the drama of a factory shut down is more memorable than anyone’s cost-benefit data. Nevertheless, I believe that on a more crowded planet, with instant and inexpensive global communication, a company that engages in wanton acts of environmental destruction will not survive long in the market place. Moreover, formerly free and low-cost resources, such as water, minerals and even energy are becoming significant cost factors in many organizations. Companies that learn to control these costs can outcompete those that ignore the cost impacts of pollution and wasted resources.
While America has been a leader in the half-century-long effort to clean up our environment, the anti-regulatory zealots now running this country’s executive branch are doing their best to eliminate that progress. The Lancet study reports that:
“There are more than 140,000 new chemicals since 1950—5,000 of these materials are produced in great volume. Fewer than half of these high-production-volume chemicals have been fully tested for safety.”
Despite these findings, the U.S. EPA under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been moving to weaken already inadequate U.S. chemical regulations. In a trend that we are starting to see throughout the federal government, former industry lobbyists are being given key positions in regulatory agencies. In this case, Dr. Nancy B. Beck, formerly of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, has been serving as a principal deputy to Pruitt on the regulation of toxic chemicals. Their strategy has not been to end regulation, since that would be illegal, but to make it more difficult to track the impact of regulatory controls. This is done in the interest of reducing “regulatory burden” on the chemical industry. Perhaps worse than this effort to turn toxic chemical regulation over to the chemical industry is EPA’s unwillingness to defend their approach in any media the administration does not control.
There has been a long-standing debate on the risks of many chemicals and for many years the chemical industry has dominated the toxic substance regulatory process through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The precautionary principle, used to test all drugs before they are released to market, is not used when we introduce new chemicals. Perhaps that is because we do not ingest these chemicals deliberately and directly into our bodies. But we do come into direct contact with them in our air, food and water. Sadly, we are all like those canaries that were once lowered into the coal mine to see if the air was safe for miners to breathe. If the canary came back dead, we didn’t send the miners down; if the canary came back alive, all was well and the miners could go to work. We are all the test dummies for the chemical industry and everyone else that releases toxics into our environment. In the interest of pursuing jobs, jobs, jobs―mostly these days for robots, robots, robots―we are willing to unleash new chemicals on the world and assume they are safe. Even when chemicals are proven harmful or are suspected to be dangerous, the chemical industry can’t be troubled with providing the government with the data needed to assess the danger.
We need to test chemicals quickly, we need to process, analyze and police dangerous substances and allow industry to bring safe substances to market as quickly as possible. This means we need more money and people involved in the regulatory process, not less.
The Trump Administration, some business people and some government officials in the developing world do not think that industry should be bothered with rules and regulations. If they must be regulated, let’s be sure the “burden” imposed is not too great. But when pollution is legitimized, the cost burden is not eliminated, it just shifts to the individuals who get sick, or the communities who must clean up the mess made by industry. The mess can be avoided with competent management and more effective regulation.
Mary Anne Hitt, Contributor
Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
Updated Nov 22, 2016
This week, as families plan to load up the car, wrangle their kids onto a plane, or ready their houses for Thanksgiving, some Americans are heading home for the holidays to places where the air isn’t safe to breathe. These are the homes of the super polluters.
Many residents around Evansville, Indiana, have long known and felt the effects of the pollution from nearby coal plants ― but recently something scary was confirmed to them.
A nine-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity that combined toxic release inventory data from coal plants as well as those plants’ carbon emissions showed that four “super polluters,” as the report described them, are concentrated around Evansville ― a higher concentration than anywhere else in the country.
“This was frightening to me as someone who has lived here for 30 years and is raising my daughter here,” said Wendy Bredhold, a Beyond Coal campaign representative living in Indiana’s Ohio River Valley.
You can see the whole amazing reporting project done by The Weather Channel, the Center for Public Integrity, and USA Today by visiting SuperPolluters.com. The study found 22 super polluters nationwide, in states including Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Alabama ― the full list from the Center for Public Integrity is here.
Wendy helped the reporters tour the area for the project earlier this year, introducing them to the families living near coal ash ponds and the coal plants. She and many other residents ― from teachers to doctors to business owners and more ― have long been organizing to push for the clean up or retirement of the local coal plants.
“This project was an admittedly heartbreaking validation of the concerns we’ve been expressing about the concentration of coal plants in our region,” said Wendy.
Thankfully, the super polluters report release in September has sparked interest and media attention that will hopefully garner attention from local and state officials, like this letter to the editor from an area resident with a heartbreaking opening paragraph:
“Before I read Jamie Smith Hopkins’ piece on the horrific pollution problem in Southern Indiana, I listened to my three year old daughter coughing herself awake in her bedroom. This is a habit she has developed over the course of this summer- sudden, uncontrollable coughing- and it happens every time we go outside to play and at night while she’s trying to sleep.”
“I hope that local people begin to understand ― and believe ― the magnitude of the issue, and at the same time find hope that the Sierra Club, friends, and allies are working on solutions,” Wendy said. “And of course I hope they join us!”
Since the super polluters project release, Beyond Coal volunteers have continued attending local meetings to speak on the issue. This fall, the South Bend, Indiana, City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the state and utility to reduce dependence on coal and increase investment in clean energy.
And just last week, more than 50 local community leaders marched to the headquarters of local utility and super polluter operator Vectren, calling for a shift to clean energy. The utility is releasing its 20-year energy plan on November 29, and these leaders are calling for a plan that sets retirement dates for super polluter coal plants, does not build natural gas plants to replace old coal plants, replaces the coal plants with renewable energy and efficiency, and commits to a path towards 100 percent clean energy.
“We’re calling on coal plant owners Vectren to be a leader in this region overburdened by pollution from coal plants and present the community with a clean energy transition plan,” explained Wendy.
Following our rally, the Evansville Courier & Press’s executive editor weighed in, pointing out the silence from Indiana’s elected officials on the subject of super polluters, and asking, “Who answers for the environment?”
We don’t have to accept living with dangerous, filthy energy, and we won’t. Indiana’s Ohio River Valley residents will continue to lead the charge to retire these four super polluters in their backyard and replace them with clean energy, as local leaders in other super polluter communities are doing the same.