The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality organized the hearing to collect comments from residents and business leaders for submission to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the following proposed rules:
The Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency want to loosen fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger cars and light trucks. The rule would strip away California’s power to craft more stringent efficiency standards, something other states currently have the option to do. The deadline to submit comments is Friday, Oct. 26.
Affordable Clean Energy Rule: The EPA wants to relax a 2015 plan to sharply reduce national greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rule would replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which put the United States on track to meet its pledge in the Paris Climate Agreement. The deadline to submit comments is Wednesday, Oct. 31.
“These rules, if implemented, will endanger the health and wellbeing of County residents,” said John Wasiutynski, director of the Office of Sustainability for Multnomah County. "And it is not hyperbole to say they threaten the viability of human life on earth.”
The current rules were established in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and must be regulated and reduced, DEQ’s air quality administrator Ali Mirzakhalili explained to those gathered Tuesday night in the Multnomah County boardroom. The Obama Administration addressed the ruling by tightening fuel efficiency standards in 2010, and creating the Clean Power Plan in 2015 to transition the nation away from coal power.
Those regulations have prompted auto makers to design cleaner-burning vehicles without compromising safety, explained Amelia Schlusser, an attorney with the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School.
“Thanks to current standards, the current fleets are safer and cleaner,” she said. “Now the Trump Administration is putting the brakes on progress.”
Schlusser said the administration's proposal to strip California of its legal waiver to impose stricter emission standards violates the Clean Air Act. And a proposal to prohibit other states from adopting California's standards “is an attack on state rights,” she said.
The EPA proposals come after the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an alarming report on the short-term consequences of a warming climate.
Preschool teacher Rebecca Matsumoto said she read that report and thought of her students. “When today’s preschoolers are 16, they’ll have to adjust to extreme weather and dramatic changes to ocean and land ecosystems,” she said “These are our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews.”
The health impacts will be sweeping, said Dr. Matt Drake, a pulmonary physician at Oregon Health and Science University who also conducts lab research on asthma.
Pollution harms every system in the body, he said. Even now, asthma affects 25 million Americans, and kills thousands each year. Exposure to pollution, particulate matter and ozone will lead to more hospital visits, for people with asthma and many other conditions that make them sensitive to pollution. Pollution-related illness causes kids to miss school, and causes adults to miss work.
The economic benefits cited by the EPA as a reason to weaken life-saving standards simply don’t exist, Drake said. That’s because those economic calculations rarely consider the increased financial cost of medical care tied to increased pollution.
“I am a parent of three children, and I have asthma myself,” he said. “I’m imploring the EPA not to weaken its standards. Ultimately Americans’ health and lives are at risk.”
Dr. Erika Moseson, a pulmonary critical care doctor at Legacy, said it can be difficult to conceive of the link between a warming planet and physical illness. The cars we drive might seem unrelated to the people seeking treatment in the emergency room. But when particulate matter enters the lungs, those pollutants are pushed into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body and into the brain.
“That’s why particulate matter is associated with cognitive changes, cancer, hip fractures,” she said. The economic costs are easier to quantify; Inhalers costs thousands of dollars a year. Every hospitalization costs money, she said.
“Then there’s a drag on productivity. And states who have cleaned up their air do see an economic benefit,” she said. “If we’re healthy, we’re productive. We can work. And I don’t need any more patients.”
Nick Bouwes put a price tag on a sliver of that cost. The environmental economist is a member of the board for Neighbors for Clean Air, but he used to work for the EPA, calculating the cost of passing — or failing to pass — environmental regulations.
Bouwes used the EPA’s own formula and the agency’s estimate of additional premature deaths that would result from the rule changes. Then he calculated that cost — $1.5 trillion by 2030.
“I’m suspecting those costs could probably be exceeded by other health points that don’t result in premature deaths,” he said, before noting the word “affordable” was somehow in the name of both proposed new rules . “It makes this title laughable. There’s nothing affordable about it.”
Families came out, too, to share their hopes and fears for the future.
“I want my girls to be able to breathe the air,” said Andrew Valdini, a teacher and the father of two elementary-age girls. “We need more regulation to prevent release of toxins and air pollution. We need them to be stronger.”
His wife, Melody Valdini, a political science professor, said the proposed rules make perfect case studies for her students.
“I talk to students about how to recognize bad policy. It’s vague, the cost and benefits are inaccurate. There’s not a scientific analysis,” she said. “These are clearly prioritizing industry over health.”
As pollution increases, poor communities will suffer the most, she said. Those with higher wages will invest in air filtration.
“But poor people will instead be systematically poisoned,” she said. “In my intro class I ask students, ‘What do we have governments for?’ To protect us. But these regulators will hurt us and make our lives worse.”
Then their daughter Annabelle spoke up.
“As mommy said, governments are here to keep us safe,” she said. “These proposed laws, don’t keep us safe. It’s scary to think that when I grow up it won’t be safe anymore.”