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VW Golf TDI clean diesel at the 2010 Washington Auto Show. Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz / CC BY-SA 3.0

Volkswagen (VW) cars recalled and fixed after 2015's "dieselgate" emissions cheating scandal are still failing air pollution tests conducted by the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), The AFP reported Monday.

AAA tested the cars outside of the laboratory and found that, while they emitted less than before the recall, they still exceeded Australia's legal limits.

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Center for American Progress

By Daniel J. Weiss, Jackie Weidman, Rebecca Leber

On Monday, Feb. 6, 16 states and numerous power companies that oppose new pollution-reduction rules must file their petitions with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In response to their initial suit, the court granted a motion to temporarily “stay,” or halt, the implementation of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, or smog pollution rule, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promulgated last summer. These “good neighbor” pollution-reduction standards will require power plants to slash their sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution. These substances are the key ingredients in acid rain and smog, and they can travel hundreds of miles and contaminate other states.

Once implemented the rule will annually save thousands of lives and prevent thousands of illnesses. Not surprisingly, the 16 states that sued EPA to block these rules include 7 of the 10 highest-polluting states in the country. And their governors and attorneys general, who decide whether to file a lawsuit to stop these safeguards, received a combined $5 million in campaign contributions from big utilities and coal companies that benefit from higher-pollution levels.

This column reviews the rule and its benefits as well as the efforts of utilities and coal companies to block it so they can avoid or postpone investments in cleanup technology. EPA analysis demonstrates that the law’s benefits to public health and the environment are much greater than its costs. These governors and attorneys general should support EPA’s efforts to protect the residents of their states and people downwind from premature death, asthma attacks, and other respiratory ailments instead of bending to the will of dirty-money donors.

These safeguards protect neighboring states

The EPA’s new rules will address a major public-health threat, annually curbing millions of pounds of air pollution from power plants that travel downwind and across the country. An interactive EPA map shows that pollution doesn’t stop at state borders, which is why the agency is acting to reduce air pollution that drifts across state lines.

EPA’s map helps viewers connect the dots. When the cursor is placed over Michigan, for example, one can see that emissions from six different states travel into the state, causing air-pollution readings above the national threshold level for public-health standards. The map also shows that pollution from Michigan travels all the way to Virginia, diminishing the latter’s air quality.

The EPA estimates these rules with produce significant air-quality benefits. By 2014 the rules will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels. Nitrogen oxide emissions will drop by 54 percent.

This improvement in air quality will result in $120 billion to $280 billion in annual benefits, including preventing up to 34,000 premature deaths and avoiding 858,000 other health problems annually that are linked to this pollution, as outlined in the table below.

When final safeguards were first announced in July 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson commented on how the law helps Americans:

No community should have to bear the burden of another community's polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses. These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air they breathe.

Many utilities have already begun to invest in pollution-control technologies, such as scrubbers, to comply with the Clean Air Interstate Rules (CAIR) from 2005. It was struck down by federal court in 2008, so EPA revamped the measures that became the cross-state rules. These CAIR investments were an estimated $1.6 billion per year.

Compliance with the cross-state rules will cost $800 million annually beginning in 2014. Meanwhile, they will generate $120 billion to $280 billion in annual health benefits. According to EPA data the benefits from the improved rule are estimated to outweigh the costs by a ratio of at least 50-to-1, and as much as 115-to-1.

The aforementioned economic benefits are also a very conservative estimate because they do not include qualified estimates of other benefits from pollution reductions. For instance, lower pollution levels will increase agriculture crop and commercial forest yields, improve visibility in state and national parks, and increase protection from acid rain for sensitive ecosystems including Adirondack lakes, Appalachian streams, and coastal waters.

Stay means delay of health protection

The stay of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will last until at least April 13 when the states’ cases against the rule will be heard, but it could continue much longer. This setback unfortunately hinders vital reductions in air pollution from power plants, prolonging poor air quality for 240 million Americans in 27 eastern states.

A long list of plaintiffs sought this timeout on health protection, including 16 states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Another 12 states affected by the rule are not trying to stop it. It’s no coincidence that the suing states are responsible for more than 90 percent of the nation’s total sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution from power plants, which the law aims to reduce.

Big-polluting states are harping on costs associated with pollution-control technology rather than acknowledging the much greater economic benefits from public health that their own residents will enjoy as a result of the EPA rule. Smog and ozone pollution in the suing states—and the 12 other states that will be regulated by the EPA rule—are polluting communities hundreds of miles away as well as directly fouling their own backyards.

Not all 28 affected states oppose this rule, however. Three of the polluting states—Illinois, New York, and North Carolina—joined EPA in support of these safeguards. These three states emit more than a billion pounds of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere each year, compared to the 8 billion pounds shot into the skies by the recalcitrant states.

These three states, along with the additional nine states uninvolved in the litigation, are not undermining these new health safeguards. Instead, they plan to take responsibility for the pollution imposed on their residents and neighboring states.

Roughly half of the people in the U.S. live in counties that have unhealthful levels of ozone-smog pollution. Based on American Lung Association rankings, 11 of the metropolitan areas with the highest particle pollution, and 12 of the metropolitan areas with the highest ozone-pollution levels reside in suing states.

Texas—the number one state for ozone pollution—had one of the worst air-quality years in its history for 2011, as high levels of pollution combined with record summer heat. Many of the state’s major metropolitan areas—including Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and even the small city of Waco—exceeded federal limits on ozone pollution last year, inflicting hazards to respiratory health on those who live there.

The Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area is ranked 14th for high levels of ozone pollution and the area houses 7.5 million people. These people, along with 50 percent of the country, live in areas where the air can be dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, and even to kill.

Dirty-money donors demand delays

Many of the utilities and coal companies responsible for this deadly air pollution oppose the cross-state rules because they make more money with uncontrolled pollution than by investing funds in cleanup equipment and practices.

These companies therefore donate campaign contributions to the governors and attorneys general in these states who can decide whether to file a lawsuit to stop these safeguards. A review of donations records by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that the governors and attorneys general in these 16 plaintiff states received almost $5 million in campaign contributions from these companies during campaigns for their current office. (see table) See attached spreadsheet for CAPAF analysis of state breakdown by government officials.

As the chart shows, high campaign contributions occur in litigating states with high pollution. The top three ozone-polluting states—Indiana, Ohio, and Texas—also had governors and attorneys general with three of the four highest campaign contributions from utilities and coal companies, racking up a little over $3 million. There’s little doubt that the leaders in these states support dismantling EPA regulations as money pours in from polluters each election season.

But instead of echoing their dirty donors in opposition to these vital health safeguards, these governors and attorneys general should support EPA’s efforts to protect the residents of their states and others from premature death, asthma attacks, and other respiratory ailments.

Pollution safeguards enjoy wide support

Voters from both political parties and in all regions of the country are singing a different tune than these states. They support the EPA’s regulatory authority to determine air-pollution standards, a poll from October 2011 reveals.

Ceres and the University of Massachusetts conducted a bipartisan poll to gauge voters’ feelings nationwide about EPA’s cross-state air-pollution and mercury-toxics rules. Two-thirds of the respondents (67 percent) oppose delayed implementation of the air-pollution rules and trust EPA, not politicians, to get the job done. This includes support from 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents surveyed.

States need to stand up to dirty utilities and protect public health

Every month of delay in the implementation of the cross-state good neighbor air-pollution rules will allow 2,000 more unnecessary deaths. The judicial stay and lawsuit also prolongs uncertainty about the final rules (login required), which makes it harder and more expensive for power plants to comply with them. The sooner states’ legal challenges to these rules are settled, the sooner power plants can invest in pollution control and clean up the air.

States should emerge as leaders in this fight, choosing public health through improved air quality instead of succumbing to the influence from big utility and coal campaign cash. Americans certainly agree.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Phil Radford

Starting today, we can begin to breathe, eat and drink a bit easier. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins enforcement of the Mercury and Air Toxics standard, a 20-year-old mandate that set limits on mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants.

These safeguards are not for show. They reflect a raft of highly credible research proving that mercury, along with other toxic metals including arsenic, chromium and nickel, is spewed in to the air as an insidious byproduct of fossil fuel burning. These metals contaminate waterways, where they infuse the bodies of commercial fish and seafood. It's no surprise that women of childbearing age are urged not to eat salmon and shrimp. High accumulated mercury levels in these and other frequently consumed species can be devastating to the unborn and infants.

That reality gave this effort tremendous momentum—a record-breaking 500,000 Americans reached out to the U.S. EPA in support of the standard, reinforcing the notion that we'd rather have healthy moms and babies than antiquated power plants raining contaminants down on our communities. We salute President Obama and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson for standing fast against the antiquated interests of Big Coal and Big Oil in order to make this ruling a reality.

Unsurprising, however, has been the utility industry's prolonged, expensive campaign of misinformation— millions of dollars and countless lobbying hours spent trying to convince legislators, and thus the American public, that a little mercury mutating a developing human nervous system was no big deal.

Some utility companies, along with members of Congress swimming in their campaign contributions, made heel-dragging on this issue an art. Their lobbyists are understandably upset, but we're happy to treat them to a seafood dinner if that assuages their grief.

The barrage of tiresome talking points from Republican and industry opposition about how this epitomizes big government's job-killing intrusion on free enterprise is already underway, but let's be as clear as the forthcoming air:

• This rule will save lives. According to the U.S. EPA, the rule will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year, as well as almost 3,000 cases of chronic bronchitis yearly. Emergency room visits will drop by almost 6,000.

• This rule will protect the environment. In 2008, nearly half of all U.S. river-miles and lake-acres were under water contamination advisories. The vast majority of this contamination was due to mercury, including 100 percent of the Great Lakes. Over time, just one gram of mercury per year will contaminate a 20-acre lake.

• This rule will create jobs and boost productivity. EPA estimates that this rule will lead to 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs. Currently only 17 states have established mercury emissions limits on coal plants. That's far from adequate, especially since the states with the largest volume of mercury emissions do not have emissions limits. In addition, we'll avoid 540,000 sick days each year, enhancing productivity while lowering health care costs.

The downside for fossil fuel facilities is negligible at best. A mere eight percent of our nation's coal-generation capability will be taken offline in the years ahead—decrepit, 30-to-50-year-old power plants that even utility companies agree need to be modernized or shut down outright as they have become too costly to upgrade or maintain, let alone operate.

So, let's take a well-deserved deep breath and celebrate the fact that regard for a nation's health and well-being has won out over the interests of a few backward-thinking bribe recipients who don't lose sleep over causing cancer and birth defects.

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