ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
To make a statement so painfully obvious that it almost need not be said, 2014 was a disheartening year for advocates of racial justice. From Ferguson, MO, to New York City, stories describing a dispiriting lack of progress were seemingly omnipresent. While these stories rightly adorned front pages across the United States, a study from the University of Minnesota added a new layer to issues of racial injustice--in a vastly different form than most headlines. The study found that, controlling for other factors, non-whites are exposed to significantly higher levels of environmental toxins than whites in the United States, with the most significant finding being that non-white Americans are exposed to a staggering 46% more nitrogen dioxide than their white counterparts. The inequality holds even when adjusting for income--poor whites are still, on average, exposed to fewer environmental toxins than wealthy non-whites. Startlingly, the study found that if black Americans were exposed to same level of nitrogen dioxide as white Americans, nearly 7,000 deaths resulting from coronary heart disease could be averted. Nitrogen dioxide is also a primary cause of a variety of lung diseases as well as preterm births.
The Environmental Protection Agency updated its nitrogen dioxide standards in January 2010, establishing a maximum threshold of 100 parts per billion of the gas in a given area. If during any hour the average level of nitrogen dioxide is found to exceed that threshold, it is considered a violation. This policy applies to non-stationary sources such as cars and trucks, as well as stationary sources such as power plants. Furthermore, the EPA required individual states to enact State Implementation Plans (SIP) that detail how the state plans to reach that threshold. As of November 2014, seven states and the District of Columbia were found by the EPA to still not be in compliance with the regulation, a full 22 months after the deadline to submit a SIP. Interestingly, the states little in common with regards to demographics or politics--running the gamut from Vermont to Arkansas.
What can be done about this issue? The most obvious answer is, of course, to address the pollution at its source. Upon finding this delay, the EPA is authorized to supercede state concerns and establish a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP), which strictly regulate nitrogen dioxide in a more “one-size-fits-all” manner. This is used to coerce the seven holdout states into compliance with the new standards, but twenty-four months is a severely long period of noncompliance, as evidenced by the thousands of deaths from coronary heart disease described above that are caused by nitrogen dioxide emissions. Given that fact, economic penalties are necessary in the interim. These penalty funds should be used to help fund further research into the various diseases that arise from the excess nitrogen dioxide pollution--an imperative particularly as federal spending on medical research has dropped significantly in recent years, leaving the United States at risk of being eclipsed in levels of research and innovation. Furthermore, the federal government should create a tax policy that encourages private businesses to cut back on harmful emissions on their own. Would businesses be willing to further cut their own emissions if they were promised that the tax rate on their profits would fall by 0.5% for every five parts per billion below the EPA standards their emissions were? I would bet they would,spurring new technologies that both help the environment and public health while creating new economic sectors and more jobs.
Finding a way to cut nitrogen dioxide emissions is more than a public health issue; it is also a racial justice issue. At a time when significant discussion is being devoted to how to better ensure racial equality, policy makers would be wise to include environmental barriers to such equality in the debates.
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