By Liza Field
In spring, you can get out and breathe.
Here in our water-steeped eastern states, many humid airs flow into you as one — from fields, rivers, ocean and soil. Everything breathes together. Wind is no longer separate from land or water, fish, birds or people.
In my native Appalachians, fierce odors expire from thawed creek hollows, leaf-mold and sun-pierced pine sap. Near the coast, humid breath flows from warming salt marshes, fish-rot and air-stirred sea oats.
People start to feel alive. Old wind-words like “euphoria” and “inspired” come to mind.
Who, frankly, doesn’t love to breathe great air? It’s the very act of freedom.
That’s why it surprised me to hear new clean air rules, established by the Environmental Protection Agency in early March, denounced as “tyranny.”
The new Tier 3 regulations decrease vehicle emissions pollutants. By 2017, they require refiners to reduce sulfur in gasoline from the current 30 to 10 parts per million. The upgraded standards will also significantly cut smog, soot, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
Automakers didn’t consider the new rules tyrannical but, instead, applauded them. Lower gasoline sulfur will be more conducive to newer emissions control equipment, said Michael Robinson, vice president for sustainability and global regulatory affairs for General Motors.
Local officials across the U.S., relieved to get help with air-quality improvements they could not have achieved alone, also welcomed the new requirements.
After all, what goes out of the tailpipe goes into the windpipe.
The targeted emissions — and the ozone they generate in sunlight — contribute heavily to the eggy, smothering smog in cities and along freeways, here in the humid, traffic-swamped east. This haze takes a toll on human health, often confining people with respiratory conditions indoors on fine summer days.
That’s why the American Lung Association also welcomed the rule.
ALA’s former chair Albert Rizzo, MD, current Section Chief of Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine for Christiana Care Health System in Delaware, said the pollutant-reduction “will bring relief to those suffering from asthma, other lung diseases and cardiovascular disease, and to the nation as a whole.”
The nation’s “whole” includes other health essentials, like trout streams, water supplies and eastern forests.
Airborne sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides create acid deposition — that pH-souring fallout that impairs native soil microbes, woodlands, stream ecosystems, the Chesapeake Bay and ocean species — from coral to fish to the planet’s oxygen-pumping plankton.
Earlier clean-ups of power-plant and tailpipe emissions have already begun reducing nitrogen levels in the Chesapeake Bay and — unexpectedly — improved stream conditions in our Appalachians. Air and water quality flow together.
Ecologists are therefore welcoming Tier 3 for its further acid-reducing capacity.
Who’s left to oppose it? Some (not all) oil refiners and the think tanks and coalitions they fund.
Independent economists estimated that Tier 3 will cost less than a penny per gallon of gas. But physicist Fred Singer, a longtime EPA opponent, says it will cost consumers 9 more cents per gallon.
Singer has spent decades working for air-clouding interests like Big Tobacco and Big Oil, who widely promoted his reports obscuring the harmfulness of cigarette smoke, acid rain and climate change.
Paul Driessen, a consultant for various fossil-fuel interests, likewise deplored the new emissions ruling as “Tier 3 tyranny.” Adjusting the “traffic light sequencing” of smoggy metro areas, he suggested, would be a green enough improvement.
Driessen helped create The Cornwall Alliance, a web ministry funded by big-oil interests. It serves to persuade Christians that climate change and environmental regulations are ploys of a Satanic cult called “The Green Dragon.”
Well here is some heady smoke. It seems to include the particulate matter of big money to burn.
As a reader of the Bible, I find its verses replete with regulations — many geared to protect topsoil, water, trees, work animals, health and the common good in general. The divine is often depicted as “wind” — needed by everything, property of nobody.
Religion aside, plain common sense could clear some air. In a biosphere whose vital components all flow together, pollution as an individual “freedom” defies reason. How free is an American kid confined indoors, unable to walk out and breathe? How free are medical bills, or lifeless rivers and seas? Everyone pays.
Conservative climate-activist Bob Inglis points out, “We have economic actors who are able to socialize their costs while privatizing their profits, and that is a real market distortion.” Clearing up that distorted visibility isn’t something the EPA can do. Our citizen base will have to.
We can start, perhaps, by fanning some fresh spring oxygen to the brain, looking around and striving to see better where our smoke — and our life — come from.
Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree-planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.