Smokestacks and Smokescreens
Big Polluters, Big Profits, and the Fight for Cleaner Air
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Tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year from microscopic toxic particles in the air we breathe. To reduce particle pollution to safe levels, EPA has proposed updating the decade-old health standard for so-called “particulate matter”. According to the EPA, updated health standards, in combination with other ongoing pollution control initiatives, will save 35,000 lives each year (EPA 1997).
Even before EPA formally proposed these new health standards, major power, oil, chemical, paper and mining companies launched a multi-million dollar public relations campaign to thwart any change in air pollution standards. Not unwisely, these corporations reasoned that it was more cost effective to buy public opinion and influence the Congress with slick PR, than to buy the pollution control equipment required by the rule.
Industry has advanced two specious arguments in this high powered PR blitz. First, that cleaner air means restrictions on personal activities like barbecue grilling and lawn mowing. And second, that cleaner air is not affordable. EWG analysis of air emissions data from EPA and the states reveals that exactly the opposite is true.
Stationary sources (factories and power plants, as opposed to cars and trucks) account for 96 percent of SO2 emissions, 56 percent of particle pollution, and 48 percent of NOX emissions, the three major forms of particulate pollution. Rational strategies to control particulate pollution will focus on these sources first.
More to the point, major particulate polluters are extraordinarily profitable and can easily afford pollution controls needed to clean the air. This study found that the combined gross revenues for 105 of the nation’s top particulate polluters averaged $1.2 trillion dollars per year for the last two years (1995-1996), 200 times the cost of achieving the proposed particulate standard. In contrast, EPA estimates the cost of compliance with the new health standard at $6.3 billion per year, or less than one half of one percent of the gross revenues of the major polluters (Figure A). A slightly larger number of companies (114 of the top polluters) reported annual profits (net income) of $68.6 billion for the same time period, more than eleven times the yearly cost of meeting the new health standard.
Some of America’s richest and most powerful corporations are behind the drive to sandbag any improvements in air pollution standards (Table A). The affordability of pollution control measures is not the real issue for these polluters. It is plainly a matter of priorities: spin control or pollution control; public relations, or pollution reduction. Thousands of lives stand in the balance.
Electric utilities are the main source of fine particulate pollution. They are also highly profitable and generate huge revenue streams each year. Average gross revenues at 83 of the top polluting power companies were $165 billion in 1995-1996. Assuming that this subset of utilities shoulders all of the costs of compliance with the new health standard, the annual gross revenues of the top polluting utilities is still 26 times more than the yearly costs of meeting the new particulate standard.