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Shortchanging Human Health and the Environment Won’t Trim Swollen Deficit

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, September 12, 2011

 

Washington – The Congressional Super Committee formed to break the political gridlock over the federal deficit will fail in its goal of balancing the budget if it heeds calls to slash programs that protect Americans’ health and the environment, EWG President Ken Cook warned today. In a letter to the panel, Cook said the nation will pay a far greater price in future health costs and crumbling infrastructure if it accepts misguided thinking focused on short-term cuts to the cost of these environmental safeguards.

In his letter, Cook said one of the primary functions of a government is to ensure that its people enjoy a clean and healthy environment, and responding to the current frenzy of ideology- and profit-motivated demands to severely limit the funding and powers of the Environmental Protection Agency would cripple the agency’s ability fill that role. Instead, Cook called on the Super Committee to target a number of misguided and outdated programs and subsidies that result in environmental damage and increased health risks.

“It is clear that the EPA’s actions save lives and provide economic benefits. It’s also clear that lavish government support for polluting industries like oil and corn ethanol and lax regulations take a toll on human health and the environment. It’s our hope the Super Committee will see clearly which course to choose for the sake of our people and our future,” said Cook.

Cook also said that limiting children's access to healthy food through proposed cuts to the SNAP program, which helps the ever-increasing number of families who are struggling to put nutritious food on the table in the face of a continuing recession, would further drive up healthcare costs swollen by the nation's obesity epidemic.

The full text of Cook's letter is attached below:

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. https://www.ewg.org

September 12, 2011

To the Members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction:

As you undertake the difficult task of framing a new budgetary policy for the nation, we at the Environmental Working Group, representing more than one million supporters across the country, wish to offer some timely suggestions for fiscally prudent changes that will benefit the health and well-being of all Americans and the environment.

The decisions you make will have a profound impact on the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and on many other environmental factors that can either keep us healthy or make us sick, with major consequences for the economy. We hope that you will take the long view of the current crisis and take great care to ensure that your decisions enhance the long-term fiscal, environmental and public health of the country – three goals that are not mutually exclusive.

In particular, we strongly urge you to resist shortsighted calls to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and to restrict its authority. Instead, you must ensure that the EPA has the necessary resources and powers to protect human health and the environment. As you work to identify budgetary savings, we ask that you target those programs and incentives that perversely harm our health and the environment. Prominent among these are tax breaks for the environmentally destructive – and very profitable – oil, gas, corn ethanol and mining industries. Currently, taxpayers are subsidizing the fouling of our land, water and air, paying to clean up the messes left behind, and finally paying a third time for the health care costs associated with these polluting industries and practices. This is impossible to justify, either in moral or fiscal terms.

One of the primary functions of a government is to ensure that its people enjoy a clean environment, as free as possible from harmful pollutants that degrade the quality of life and cause premature death. Careful environmental protections safeguard human life and improve health even as they save taxpayers money and stimulate technical innovation. Numerous studies have shown that environmental regulation has paid great dividends over generations, dwarfing the up-front costs to industry. Jeffrey Hollander, CEO of household products maker 7th Generation and cofounder of the American Sustainable Business Council, and David Levine, cofounder and Executive Director of the American Sustainable Business Council, made this point recently in The Huffington Post:

“While over-burdensome government regulations may be harmful, those which Congress is currently focusing on will not strangle job creation. This is a myth repeated by politicians and CEOs who stand to increase profits while decreasing safety if standards disappear – standards that ensure product and food safety, protect our environment, and guarantee the proper regulation of our financial, medical, and legal industries. The anti-regulation mania that's swept Washington conveniently ignores the positive impact that common sense regulations have on all of our daily lives, while threatening to harm the basic protections that we have come to expect.”

In the face of continued inaction by Congress on legislative reform, the EPA for the first time in more than 20 years is currently using its existing, though severely limited, authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to prioritize, test and determine the safety of numerous toxic industrial chemicals – including some that are showing up in the bodies of nearly all Americans. The agency is also increasing transparency by denying spurious claims of confidentiality used by companies to evade full disclosure of chemical exposures and risks. These involve many toxic chemicals that millions of Americans are exposed to through everyday use of consumer products, most of which have never been assessed for safety. EPA is undertaking these efforts in a well-considered way that listens to all stakeholders, including chemical industry representatives and the NGO community. The agency deserves praise and support for these and similar initiatives – not to have its legs cut out from underneath it.

Good food is as essential to our health as clean air, and food and farm policy is another area that is ripe for correction, as the obesity epidemic demonstrates. We must ensure that all Americans – particularly children – get enough of the right kinds of food to lead healthy lives, that food is produced in ways that protect and improve the health of soil and water and enhance long-term agricultural sustainability. We must provide an appropriate, fiscally responsible safety net to keep working farm and ranch families on the land and provide economic opportunities for them and their communities. Finally, successful food policy means doing all we can to ensure a safe food supply. Just this summer, 60,000 pounds of ground beef and 36 million pounds of ground turkey have been recalled because of microbial contamination. The illnesses caused by these and other tainted foods slow economic productivity and raise healthcare costs. We urge you to fully fund the new Food Safety Modernization Act as well as programs that support healthy diets, greater access to healthy food and beverages in schools and communities, improved conservation practices on farms, and not least, thriving local, sustainable and regional food systems.

In contrast, current misguided food and farm policies cost too much and direct too much money to highly profitable farms that do not need public support. The outdated farm subsidy system is broken – plain and simple. Rather than helping struggling family farms in times of need, it delivers unneeded handouts to the largest, most profitable producers and landowners. The top 10 percent of recipients receive 74 percent of all subsidy money, while two-thirds of farmers get absolutely nothing. This needs to change.

Cutting out this wasteful spending will help bring down the deficit while protecting other priorities. Direct payments that go out regardless of market conditions or actual land use must be eliminated, or at least targeted only to farmers who demonstrate a clear financial need. The outdated price support programs are irrelevant in today’s marketplace and should be eliminated. The Supplemental Revenue Enhancement program (SURE), problematic from the beginning, should be terminated. New limits should be applied to crop and revenue insurance, and administrative support for private insurance companies should be cut further. The Average Crop Revenue Election program (ACRE) should be consolidated with the private revenue insurance option to prevent duplication. Finally, meaningful income eligibility limits and payment caps must be applied to all farm subsidy programs to ensure that a reasonable level of help is being provided only to those who most need it.

Enacting these changes would yield billions of dollars in savings, a small fraction of which must be devoted to shoring up programs that most benefit a healthy, responsible food system. These include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition (WIC) and school meals – which help the neediest among us.

Poor diets cost the nation billions in diet-related disease and health care costs. We urge you to invest in better nutrition for all by funding programs that promote domestic production and consumption of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. These include Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program and the Department of Defense Fresh program. The landmark Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 must be fully funded to give children the best nutrition possible.

We also must provide strong funding for programs that provide new market opportunities for sustainable and organic farmers and ranchers and create jobs by strengthening the local food economy. These include the Farmers Market Promotion program, the Value-Added Producer Grant and Sustainable Agriculture Research Education programs and the Organic Extension and Research Initiative.

Funding for conservation and research must also be maintained in order to blunt the damage that modern agricultural practices increasingly inflict on the landscape and to keep America’s farms viable into the future. Conservation, research and extension programs are crucial in supporting farmers’ and ranchers’ efforts to protect and enhance soil resources, improve air quality and conserve water and wildlife habitat. In the coming years, producers will face significant natural resource constraints as a result of rising temperatures, periodic flooding and drought. Maintaining and strengthening conservation and research programs is essential for improving water conservation and food production, adapting to climate change, promoting food safety and ensuring healthy rural economies and ecosystems.

Investing in water infrastructure, like food safety, nutrition, conservation and local food programs, has upfront costs but broad economic benefits for the job market, human health and the environment. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a grade of D minus, noting that leaky pipes lose approximately 7 billion gallons of drinking water every day. In 2009, EPA reported to Congress that utilities need $334.8 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years. The evidence shows that these investments pay off in jobs and improving infrastructure – which means cleaner water and more efficient delivery. The Government Accountability Office reported that the $6 billion appropriated to the Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped pay for more than 3,000 water quality projects and at its height helped employ 15,000 full-time employees. According to EPA, in many cases state programs increased the amount of money they award to projects and did so in half the usual amount of time. Unless the nation makes these upfront investments in drinking water infrastructure, we will pay the price with increasingly frequent water main breaks. And unless we fund source water and drinking water protection, Americans will continue to be exposed to elevated levels of potentially harmful contaminants.

It is clear that the EPA’s actions save lives and provide economic benefits. A report by the Office of Management and Budget earlier this year found that while EPA rules had the highest costs of compliance over the past 10 years, they also had the highest benefits. For example, EPA’s rules and resulting improvements in public health from reducing particulates in the air yielded a benefit of $82-$551 billion in economic and health benefits at a cost of $23-$28 billion. That is a tremendous return on investment.

There are clear, easy ways to reorient budgetary policy to reduce the deficit, meet the needs of today’s America and improve the fiscal legacy and lives of future generations. Without clean air, clean water and good nutrition, illnesses and related health care costs will continue to rise, with dramatic negative effects on the economy. We look forward to working with you as you confront these important challenges.

If you have questions or would like to discuss these ideas further, please contact our government affairs staff – David DeGennaro (202-939-9128/[email protected]), Sheila Karpf (202-939-9153/[email protected]) or Jason Rano (202-939-9125/[email protected]).

Sincerely,

Kenneth A. Cook
President

 

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