Op-Ed: Thirdworld, Firstworld – Senator Collins’ concerns about air pollution need to come home

Cookstoves, Power Plants, and Maine’s Senator Collins

Lewiston Sun Journal, June 24, 2012

Dr. Mary S. Booth and Gordon Clark

Last month Senator Susan Collins introduced the Clean Cookstoves Support Act (S. 2515), so that poor people around the world – most of whom use dirty wood-fired stoves to cook their food – might get cleaner, more efficient cooking devices.

The Senator is to be commended for her effort. The troubling question, though, is why isn’t she standing up for her own constituents when it comes to similarly inefficient, dirty energy sources right here in the U.S.?

Less than a year ago Senator Collins introduced the “EPA Regulatory Relief Act of 2011,” a bill roundly condemned by environmentalists as an attempt to gut EPA regulations intended to clean up the nation’s dirtiest industrial power plants – many of them fueled by biomass, and several right here in Maine. She then tried to attach her legislation to the unrelated transportation bill this spring, an effort that only narrowly failed.

Ironically, Senator Collins’ cookstove bill outlines exactly the reasons she should be supporting similar policies on biomass and fossil fuel boilers here in the U.S.

For instance, her bill objects to the fact that cookstoves used by half the world’s population are fueled by firewood, dung, or coal, and are “inefficient and polluting.”  So why has she been trying to stop EPA efforts to clean up the most inefficient and polluting industrial burners in this country – ones that burn contaminated construction and demolition debris, forest residue and coal and industrial wastes, and which emit large quantities of heavy metals, dioxins, carcinogens and lung- clogging fine particles?

Senator Collins’ bill continues: “Smoke from… these traditional cookstoves… is associated with a number of chronic and acute diseases, including respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia, heart disease, and cancer….”

All true – but these compassionate and sensible policy instincts are missing when it comes to regulating emissions from industrial burners in the U.S., emissions associated with an alarming variety of health impacts, including asthma, heart attacks, diabetes, and strokes.

The Senator rightly decries the 2,000,000 lives lost to the health effects of primitive cookstoves every year. Yet EPA estimates 8,000 American lives would be saved every year by requiring updated pollution controls on industrial power plants. In Maine, which has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country, reducing industrial boiler emissions is one direct way to tackle that statistic.

Perhaps most ironic of all, Collin’s cookstove bill points out that “black carbon created from biomass cookstoves significantly contributes to… climate change.” But where does her support for arresting climate change go when it comes to U.S.  pollution? The industrial power plants that the Senator seeks to protect from regulation actually emit as much black carbon in the form of fine particulate matter as coal, and even more carbon dioxide.

Senator Collins’ Clean Cookstoves Support Act is laudable, and smart policy. We wish that she would offer a similarly wise “Clean U.S. Power Plants Act” – one that demonstrates the same compassion, wisdom, and sound environmental stewardship that is written into every line of her cookstove bill.

Partnership for Policy Integrity