An Unseen Effect of Sequestration: Dirtier Air

photoAmidst all the talk about sequestration’s effect on the military and intelligence budgets, one subject crucial to the region’s health, if not its economy, has been overlooked, according to the Lung Association of Virginia, which is quoting a White House report that estimates Virginia will lose about $2,997,000 in environmental funding to ensure clean water and air quality, as well as prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste.

“The sequester is a big hit to public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the cop on the beat enforcing our clean air laws, and fewer inspections means more air pollution,” said Laura Kate Anderson Bender. coordinator of the Virginia Healthy Air Coalition. “Cuts to air pollution monitoring also have a real impact on human health. People have the right to know the quality of their air, and people with lung and heart disease rely on that information to know when it’s safe to go outside.”

She said the cuts to EPA’s clean air programs would impact local air pollution monitoring and enforcement of existing clean air laws, citing an estimate provided to Congress by the EPA in February that the sequester would â€œreduce EPA’s ability to monitor compliance with environmental laws as fewer environmental cops are on the beat,” and predicted that the cuts could result in 1,000 fewer inspections in FY2013.

EPA furloughs

EPA has said it expects to use furloughs to deal with the budget cuts imposed by sequestration. The agency told Bloomberg BNA it is planning to implement furloughs in two phases, with the first phase requiring employees to take 32 hours of unpaid leave before June 1. The agency would then review its total spending in June to determine how many additional furlough days would be required to meet the agency’s budget target for fiscal year 2013.

The EPA also said in February that there will be a reduction in the funding that goes to state air quality monitoring programs, “likely forcing the shutdown of some critical air monitoring sites.” The White House Council on Environmental Quality estimated Feb. 25 that states could see a $154 million reduction in federal funding for environmental activities under sequestration.

“We’re not sure yet where these sites could be, but any loss to air quality monitoring means that people at risk of health effects from air pollution may not be adequately alerted on days when it’s not safe for them to spend time outside,” Bender said. “It also means that we won’t even be able to identify areas that aren’t in compliance with the Clean Air Act, let alone work to clean them up.”

Bender said it’s not as though polluters will take it upon themselves to abide by clean air standards if there are fewer inspections.

“As with any law, the Clean Air Act’s effectiveness depends on enforcement,” she said. “Unfortunately, noncompliance with the Clean Air Act is high. Back in 2011, for example, EPA released a “watch list” of hundreds of facilities violating the Act that hadn’t yet received formal enforcement action.  The current national and state enforcement mechanisms were already underfunded before sequestration took effect, and having fewer inspections now will only compound the problem.”

Biggest risks

Ozone and particle pollution are generally regarded as the biggest health risks resulting from air pollution. Ground-level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, both of which come from largely from motor vehicles and industrial facilities like power plants, react in the presence of sunlight.

Ozone is the primary component of smog, and can worsen lung diseases like asthma, cause respiratory distress, and, over the long term, cause permanent lung damage. Particle pollution is emitted from vehicles, power plants, and wood-burning stoves. It’s also formed when sulfur dioxide, another pollutant that comes mainly from power plants, reacts in the atmosphere, Bender said. The smaller the particles are, the more damage they can cause, including heart attacks and strokes, aggravated asthma and other lung diseases, decreased lung function, and even premature death.

 

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James R. Hood
James R. Hood is the editor and publisher of FairfaxNews.com. A former Associated Press editor and executive, he has more than 50 years of reporting experience.