by Martha Kirkpatrick
Rector of St. Margaret’s, Belfast
We’ve been experiencing a lot of hot and humid days here in Maine lately, and you’ve probably heard the ozone alerts on the radio. If you suffer from asthma or other breathing problems, you know how poor air quality, especially when it is combined with heat and humidity, can make it especially dangerous to be outside.
For me, and for many others, air quality is a moral issue and a matter of faith. We all need to be able to breathe. As Christians, we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, and to care for “the least of these.” This means especially children, the elderly, and the vulnerable.That’s a major reason why I traveled to Washington, D.C. last Monday and Tuesday as one of more than 60 people from 12 states who gathered to support the Clean Air Act.
Representing Maine Interfaith Power & Light, I joined other faith community leaders and people from the NAACP, Health Care Without Harm, medical professionals, and business leaders. Fortunately we were there during the cooler part of the week – it only hit the low 90s!
On Monday afternoon we gathered at the United Methodist Building, which is conveniently located between the U.S. Supreme Court and the Senate office buildings. After introductions, we received excellent briefings on the key air quality issues that are currently at stake.
First, there is an updated ozone (smog) standard. This health standard is very important because it tells the public when the air is safe to breathe. The science is clear that the current ozone standard fails to protect public health, especially the elderly, children, and other sensitive groups. EPA is expected to come out with updated ozone standards this summer.
Second, there is toxic air pollution cleanup, especially mercury from power plants. We all know from the advisories telling us not to eat certain fish that mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women. Air-born mercury travels from coal-fired power plants downwind and ends up contaminating fish tissue. EPA estimates that this long overdue update to the Clean Air act will prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, and prevent 120,000 asthma attacks and about 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children annually. This final rule is expected to be released in November.
The third important issue involves the regulation of greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. This is vitally important not only to for climate change but also for public health, yet there are currently no limits on the amount of carbon pollution being spewed into the air. EPA is slated to release the first proposed standards for power plants and refiners this year.
Later on Monday afternoon we received some advocacy training, and had as our guest speaker Gina McCarthy, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, who spoke passionately about the importance of action in these areas. For me it was a reunion of sorts: I knew Gina from my days as Maine DEP Commissioner, when she was in the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs, and very effective and straight-forward then as now.
Afterwards there was a reception, and then a group of us went out to a nearby restaurant. It was wonderful to meet people who all share a common concern and purpose but come to it from many different paths. I met several clergy, including a Roman Catholic priest and a couple of Lutheran pastors, as well as many lay people representing their Interfaith Power & Light. It gives me hope.
The next day (after a rather warm night – the air conditioner in my hotel room didn’t work!) we gathered in the morning and were briefed on the “Legislative State of Play.” The Clean Air Act is at risk in Congress due to efforts to delay or weaken the regulations or cut EPA’s funding.
Sometimes these actions appear as riders to budget bills or other critical legislation. (Unlike under Maine Law, riders can be attached to bills even where there is no substantive connection between the content of the principal bill and the rider.) Especially interesting were the presentations from Kate Konschnick from the Office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and John Arensmeyer, who represents the Small Business Majority.
Then the Maine crew left for our Hill meetings. There were three of us: Andy Burt (if you or your church has done anything with environmental sustainability, cool communities, local foods, etc… in Maine, you have met Andy – she is involved in everything!), Ashley Lamoreau, who was there representing the Maine League of Women Voters and who is a former staffer for Senator Collins, and me.
Our first meeting was at Senator Snowe’s Office, where we met with her staff person Patrick Woodcock. We had expected to have 10 to 15 minutes, but in fact each of our meetings were closer to a half hour. It is some different, meeting with our members of Congress as a constituent rather than as a bureaucrat!
After that we dashed across the Capitol (see photo) to the House office building, where we met with Representative Michaud’s Senior Legislative Assistant, Bill Perry. Both Patrick and Bill expressed as heartfelt wish to be in Maine now rather than in DC! Then back across to meet with Senator Collins, who met with us personally (and we will be receiving a photo to prove it). In all three of our meetings, the people we met with were welcoming, engaged and interested in what we had to say.
There was a meeting with White House staff later in the afternoon, but many of us, including me, couldn’t be there as we had planes to catch. As it happened, virtually everyone was delayed due to thunderstorms up and down the East coast. I finally arrived in Bangor at about 12:45 a.m. Too tired to trust myself to be able to drive the hour home, I crashed at the nearest hotel. But it was a trip well worth it.
You might think everyone would be too busy dealing with debt ceilings etc. in Washington these days, but in fact, talking to our members of Congress about the Clean Air Act is especially timely right now, and this is especially important for Maine.
For 40 years the Clean Air Act has worked to improve public health by addressing common pollutants in the air we breathe: ozone, particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead have been cut by more than 60%. All this while the gross domestic product has grown by 209%, according to the U.S. EPA. But our air quality problems are far from solved, which you certainly know if you have trouble breathing on hot days.
Maine has the highest level of asthma in the country, and much of our air pollution comes from out-of-state sources, especially up-wind coal fired power plants. They don’t talk about “downeast” for nothing – being the furthest east and downwind, we are the end of the tail pipe. Our ozone levels are their worst at Acadia National Park at 8 o’clock at night; it comes right up from Boston, where it cooks in the hot atmosphere during the day before it descends on us in the evening.
People of all faith traditions are rising to express concern and take action on behalf of the threats to our planet and to human health. When our failure to care for God’s creation affects the most vulnerable among us – children, the elderly, and the ailing – the moral imperative is even stronger. And there are equity issues too; who bears the costs and for what. All of this calls upon people of faith to get engaged.