Earth Day: A Tale of Polluted Accusations

By Steven Clyde


Historical Background:

The 1960’s saw a mass uprising in the public interest of pollution ranging from the smut of factories, lead in gasoline that powered cars, and pesticides (mainly insecticides).

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring is considered one of the greatest science books of all time[1], and even today it’s held in high regard for its influence in expanding government powers to regulate the protection of our environment as it became clear through media that the free market was unfit to solve these problems themselves, or so they believed.

She argued that pesticides in general have devastating effects on the environment because they end up wiping out more than intended.  There was also the claim that the chemical DDT caused cancer, in which she said:

“In laboratory tests on animal subjects, DDT has produced suspicious liver tumors. Scientists of the Food and Drug Administration who reported the discovery of these tumors were uncertain how to classify them, but felt there was some “justification for considering them low grade hepatic cell carcinomas.” Dr. Hueper [author of Occupational Tumors and Allied Diseases] now gives DDT the definite rating of a “chemical carcinogen.”[2]

During the 60’s and 70’s, many pieces of legislation were passed. With the Air Pollution Act of 1955, the Clean Air Act 1963, and the Air Quality Act of 1967, research into pollution had finally been done at the federal level. From there the Clean Air Act of 1970 passed with the addition of four government regulation programs known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), State Implementation Plans (SIPs), New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs). [3]

Low and behold arose the Environmental Protection Agency, signed into law as an executive order on December 2, 1970, in which major amendments were added in 1977 and 1990.

Legislative Effects:

Fuel Emissions from Cars

Automakers were forced to reduce emissions, specifically for the purpose of removing lead from gasoline over the course of time. This led to the “lead phasedown” program. In 1974, gasoline manufacturers were forced to offer unleaded gasoline while simultaneously car manufacturers had to design tank filler inlets so cars with catalytic converters could operate on unleaded gasoline. Overtime, regulations on refineries became more and more strict, forcing them to phase out more and more lead overtime. The 1990 changes to the Clean Air Act called for one last strict phase out periods that would last another five years, and by January 1, 1996, lead gasoline was effectively banned.[4]

 

Hospitals

Hospitals came under much scrutiny in the 80’s for how they handled their medical waste. Apparently, some of this toxic waste which included used needles and syringes were washing up on beaches, while the rest was deemed to be a threat to workers safety (even more so than the safety of the general public). The most efficient way to get rid of the medical remnants was to incinerate them, and according to the EPA over 90% of waste was incinerated before 1997.[5]  In 1988, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act which was a two year program meant to promote strict guidelines for how to dispose of waste, as it was felt that companies weren’t doing this efficiently without the governments help.  Its goals were to identify each type of waste and how it will be regulated, establish a tracking system and record keeping, require management standards, and define penalties for misuse.[6] The program eventually developed the Model Guidelines for State Medical Waste Management that is meant to serve as a guide for disposing of waste and is updated and used to this day.[7]

 

Power Plants

Coal fired power plants had the worst reputation of all, as watching the smoke rise from the smokestacks painted a very dreadful yet visible picture of pollution that entices those to vote for more regulation to stop the air pollution. This called for the regulation of power plants in that they were forced to adopt new measures to adhere to the pollution controls set by the EPA. While there was an inefficient method of literally washing the coal to remove sulfur,  inevitably companies were forced to install scrubbers, which though were around in Great Britain since the 1930’s had only been adopted in the USA in 1967. Scrubbers, also known as flue gas desulfurization units, were thought to solve many of the air pollution problems related to the plants. One of the effects of the 1977 additions to the Clean Air Act was that it now required all new power plants to install scrubbers as part of their operation; power plants that were already in existence were exempted. If older facilities wanted to expand, they had to get EPA approval showing that they were operating in a safe enough manner.

 

The Deception of Government:

As with most things done by the government, there is the seen and the unseen, with the general public mostly focusing on what is seen.

The Seen

The seen in this scenario is quite clear: many people were concerned about the quality of the air, water, etc and thought pollution was something that was completely preventable if government just stepped in. Many books and media reports emerged warning them that without the guidance and coordination of federal and state governments, the air would be impossible to breathe in the not too distant future.

It should come as no surprise that the same agency that is given high praise in regard to helping the environment, also comes out  with their own studies showing how many lives they save and how much better off the Earth is because of them!

According to them, by 2020 the costs to meet the Clean Air Act requirements will be valued at $65 billion, while the improvements will be valued at $2 trillion!  From 1990-2010, over 160,000 adult lives had been saved. 130,000 were saved from heart disease. 1.7 million were saved from Asthma. 13 million were prevented from having lost work days. Their list goes on and on, but their point is that without them you’re effectively killing or hindering all those people if not for these strict regulations that burden companies.[8]

The Unseen

The unseen is the costs, the slowing down of technological advancement because of strict regulations, and most of all: the blatant deception.

For example, air was already becoming cleaner through technology advancements before the EPA and the Clean Air Act was ever established. This book titled “Air Quality in America” noted some very relevant statistics[9]:

  • “TSP in Pittsburgh declined about 50 percent between the late 1950s and 1970.”
  • “Eastern and midwestern industrial cities achieved large reductions in particulate levels during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century”
  • “Los Angeles County tripled its population between 1920 and 1940, with motor vehicle registrations rising by 40 percent between 1930 and 1940.6 As a result of increasing motorvehicle emissions, Los Angeles began to experience a new kind of air pollution in the late 1940s. This “photochemical haze” became known as smog and was composed of ozone and other irritating gases. Yet monitoring data from the 1950s and ’60s show that by 1956, ozone had already begun a steady decline that continued through the 1960s and beyond (see figure 1-3 on page 17). The ozone decline may have begun even earlier, but data are not available before 1956”
  • “Data from New York City show a 58 percent decline in sulfur dioxide levels in the seven years before the act’s passage.”

 

The EPA doesn’t have the greatest track record when you look closely. Take these examples to heart:[11]

  • In 1994, under threat of lawsuit, the EPA forced the Pennsylvania state legislature to spend $145 million of taxpayers’ money on the construction of 86 automobile emissions test centers. Later that same year, EPA officials realized that the project was a mistake, but forced the legislature to buy the empty buildings nonetheless.
  • In 1996 the EPA demanded that citizens in Salmon, Idaho close down the town’s two sawdust-burning heaters and replace them with propane heaters at a price of $750,000. Seeing a rural population of only 3,100 in the town with most airborne pollutants consisting of road dust and pollen, the EPA was more successful at cleaning out the Salmonites’ bank accounts than at cleaning their air.
  • During the summer of 1995, due to new federal limits placed on power plant emissions, utility companies in Chicago were forced to raise their prices for electricity. Over 700 residents of the city perished in their apartments from dehydration and heat stroke, many of whom had air conditioners but could not afford to turn them on.

Conclusion

The idea that the reason we enjoy relatively clean air, water, etc today is because of government agencies and regulations is absurd. When assessing the data, it is true that forcing automakers, power plants, and the like to adapt to different technology WILL result in change, but the question that needs to be asked is “Is this data relevant and telling based on the history prior to the legislation”? The answer is a resounding no, as you notice when you look at data before legislation was passed the air was already becoming cleaner, and technology was already advancing.

Does this sound like a familiar story? Government seems to have long track record of this kind of thing.

In my next article, I’ll be talking about the poverty and how poverty was falling, yes you guessed it, even before the governments declared War on Poverty. You could even argue, the government paused the progress of eliminating poverty!


[1] http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/25-greatest-science-books

[2] Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, 1962, 118.

[3] https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/evolution-clean-air-act

[4] http://web.mit.edu/ckolstad/www/Newell.pdf, 26.

[5] https://www.epa.gov/rcra/medical-waste

[6] http://www.hercenter.org/rmw/rmwoverview.cfm

[7] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-02/documents/model_guidelines_for_state_medical_waste_management.pdf

[8] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-07/documents/summaryreport.pdf

[9] https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/-air-quality-in-america_134905535523.pdf, 13-18.

[10] http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/media/pdf/the-facts-about-air-quality-and-coal-fired-power-plants-final.pdf

[11] https://mises.org/library/hot-air

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