Premature death has reared frighteningly again in environmental discourse.

Bob Tippee

Premature death has reared frighteningly again in environmental discourse.

The mere words make a person shudder.

That they do is, of course, why environmental activists and politicians throw them around when they want to make a point. It requires no superhuman endowment of political courage to speak out against premature death.

A group of US senators has written a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency warning that a plan to reform the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR) program threatens to produce a variety of horrors, including "more premature deaths."

EPA in June proposed changes that would, among other things, distinguish types of work requiring NSR permitting from types of work that do not. Confusion over the distinction has stalled projects in the refining, power generation, and other industries.

Refiners argue that the NSR program as now interpreted stymies plant modifications they must make to meet a host of new clean-air regulations.

One clean-air program thus impedes progress on other clean-air programs. EPA is right to want to break the logjam.

But senators signing the letter to EPA aren't sure.

"Because the specific changes proposed have not been subject to careful study and full public comment," they told EPA, "we have serious concerns that the changes could allow more air pollution—causing more asthma, more heart and lung problems, and more premature deaths (OGJ Online, Aug. 8, 2002)."

More premature deaths? More than what? How many premature deaths have there been, anyway?

Those questions have no answers. Premature mortality is just a conceptual tool of environmental risk analysis.

To throw it around like some sort of body count is gruesome and misleading. And it puts US air quality in an inappropriately grim context. Emissions of statutory air pollutants are plummeting.

Stern warnings about "more premature deaths" amount to low-grade, self-discrediting propaganda.

NSR reform—which has, in fact, been studied thoroughly and subjected to public comment—will help refiners make cleaner fuels and electricity suppliers improve generation efficiency.

Nobody will die early because of it. The Senate's letter-writers deserve shame for implying otherwise.

(Online Aug. 9, 2002; author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

More in Editor's Perspective