Fast Company

When Politics Kill

When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed me to serve as the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, my first challenge came not from the smoggy skies of Los Angeles or the pesticide-laden drainage from irrigated fields near Fresno, but from a small town in Missouri. Well, actually it came from the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions made to Missouri Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond by Briggs & Stratton in exchange for the lives of about 1200 Americans.

My CalEPA air quality team had concluded that small, highly-polluting engines should be required to reduce emissions, using off-the-shelf technology, the same as your car or a refinery’s smoke stack is required to do. Doing so, the science showed, would reduce asthma and save lives. Briggs and Stratton had an engine assembly plant in Missouri, so they turned to the Senator, whose election campaigns they had generously supported, and cooked up a scheme to sneak a provision into a bill before Congress that would prevent any state from regulating these potent polluters.

After much wrangling, Governor Schwarzenegger and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) protected California’s unique rights under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate these small engines, but Bond managed to force the other 49 states to wait for the USEPA to take action if they were going to do likewise. Bond, and the USEPA at the time, said there was a greater threat to the economy than our lungs from such regulation, because it might hurt the factory in Missouri.

Last week, after stalling for nearly five years, the USEPA finally agreed with California and imposed regulations on small engine pollution. Californians are already protected from these smog-makers, but the federal rules for the other 49 states won’t take effect for three more years, despite the fact that the USEPA now admits that “…the total estimated public health benefits range between $1.6 and $4.4 billion by 2030. These benefits outweigh estimated costs by at least eight to one, while preventing over 300 premature deaths, 1,700 hospitalizations, and 23,000 lost workdays annually."

The additional delays in regulating this significant source of pollution nationally means that about 1200 Americans will die prematurely for absolutely no reason - - other than politics. Meanwhile, Briggs and Stratton lost the business anyway, because the rest of the world wanted cleaner engines too and started buying the ones produced by Briggs’ competitors, like Coleman and Honda, who were smart enough to produce cleaner versions of the same thing at competitive prices.

Yes, politics kills people, jobs, and even the economy it pretends to protect. I hope this small battle in the long war for clean air will serve as a teachable moment for our Presidential candidates and the voters who will make their choices later this year. If so, then perhaps those 1200 will not die in vain.

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