What a nice piece of news: As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day Wednesday, the world’s air is getting cleaner.
But this progress is only symbolic, and most likely temporary, and it has come at a tremendous cost. Because the same force that has shuttered polluting factories and taken countless cars and trucks off roads — the coronavirus — has also killed more than 175,000 people worldwide and wreaked economic havoc as it races around the globe.
The immense attention on the virus has obscured Earth Day, which for a half-century has been dedicated to saving our planet from man’s environmental ravages. If the day sneaked up on you this year, you are forgiven. But you should know that while the environment has received a bit of a reprieve of late, it is still under assault by the Trump administration.
In the weeks leading up to Earth Day, the White House rolled back tougher curbs on automobile emissions, despite its own agencies’ projections that the move would increase premature deaths. The Environmental Protection Agency said it would stop tracking factory and power plant pollution citing, of all things, the coronavirus crisis. The administration also reduced limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, and allowed coal companies to dump more debris in streams. And it weakened regulations on oil and coal-fired power plant emissions of mercury and other toxins by changing how the costs and benefits of such rules are calculated in a way that could make it more difficult to regulate other pollutants in the future.
This week, the administration decided against tightening limits on emissions of industrial soot, the nation’s most widespread deadly pollutant, despite recommendations from EPA staff scientists to lower the limits, and finalized a new rule that reduces the number of wetlands and streams protected by the Clean Water Act.
This zeal to reduce regulations will have real consequences. Dirty air and dirty water always do. New evidence even shows a link to COVID-19.
A Harvard study found that a slight increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution — i.e., soot — increases the likelihood of dying of COVID-19 by 15 percent, a danger best explained by the damage breathing polluted air does to one’s lungs. Another analysis in Italy, Spain, France and Germany found that 78% of COVID-19 deaths occurred in the five regions with the worst air pollution of the 66 that were studied. Here in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, where we all breathe dirty air, communities of color breathe in 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white communities, and those same communities of color have been more at risk of dying from COVID-19.
The coal, gas and oil industries have been the beneficiaries of the White House’s policies. The losers are the American people, whose health and safety the government is supposed to protect. Ponder that during this Earth Day.
— The editorial board