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By Charles Pope October 3, 2011

Earl Blumenauer says delaying air pollution rules will kill 34,000 people a year

Even in these cynical, partisan days, there are some universal truths. For example: Sulfur dioxide is a pollutant that can severely affect a person’s health and, in extreme cases, be fatal. Nitrogen oxide is another common and nasty pollutant that makes people sick.

Scientists and non-scientists as well as Republicans and Democrats generally agree the stuff is bad for you.

But how you deal with it is where agreement ends -- at least in Congress.

On the House floor Sept. 23, Republicans muscled through legislation that would delay or scrap rules to reduce mercury and other harmful air emissions, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Though the bill passed, it’s highly unlikely to pass the Senate and would be vetoed by President Barack Obama if it did.

Nevertheless, the House debate was lively.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., was one of the loudest critics, insisting that delaying the tougher air pollution rules would have dire results.

"Every year these protections are delayed, another 34,000 people will die prematurely," he said.

Really? That’s a lot of dead bodies and it’s very specific. Perfect for PolitiFact.

First, some background.

As passed on a nearly party-line vote of 249-169, the bill would, among other things, require the president to set up a committee of Cabinet-level officials to evaluate the toll that a dozen-plus Environmental Protection Agency regulations would have on jobs, electricity, gasoline prices and competitiveness.

Republicans said action was needed to slow down a runaway bureaucracy.

"While there are reasonable regulations that protect our children and help keep our environment clean, we need to stop unelected bureaucrats from imposing excessive regulations that unnecessarily increase costs for consumers and make it harder for our economy to create jobs," House Speaker John Boehner said.

Blumenauer and other Democrats said the bill was a craven gift to business that would result in dirtier air and more death.

Blumenauer’s dire prediction was directed at the bill’s delay of something called the Cross‐State Air Pollution Rule which would limit the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide belching from power plants in 27 states.

The pollutants react in the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone and set free tiny particulates that can damage lung capacity and cause respiratory problems.

In real numbers, the EPA says the rules would reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide from the plants by 6.4 million tons a year (from 8.8 million tons in 2005) and to 1.4 million tons a year of nitrogen oxide (from 2.6 million tons annually in 2005).

Those are big numbers and Blumenauer argued Sept. 22 during floor debate that lawmakers voting for the bill would be directly responsible for making people sick.

"The losers are hundreds of thousands of people (who) will die, get illness from cancer, asthma, lost school days, millions of lost work days, the lost quality of life that is documented beyond belief," he said. "This is real, and these people lose."

Blumenauer’s aides said he was relying on studies conducted by the EPA to support his claim.

The most authoritative of those studies is a 414-page analysis released in June. The dense title suggests it’s a product of science rather than sound-byte politicians: "Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Federal Implementation Plans to Reduce Interstate Transport of Fine Particulate Matter and Ozone in 27 States; Correction of SIP Approvals for 22 States."

The report relied on the work of EPA scientists and a survey of independent, peer-reviewed studies by outside scientists.

And there, listed among the "key findings" is this: "The benefits result primarily from 13,000 to 34,000 fewer (particulate matter) and ozone-related premature mortalities."

The report repeats the number eight more times.

We find that Blumenauer was on solid ground. But he also  cherry-picked the highest death number rather than using the range of 13,000 to 34,000 additional deaths.

While that omission does not change the conclusion that air pollution is bad for public health, it could exaggerate the problem. For that reason, we rate this claim: Mostly True.

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Return to to comment on this PolitiFact/Oregon ruling.

Our Sources

Email exchange, Derek Schlickeisen, press secretary for Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Sept. 23

Email exchange, Enesta Jones, Environmental Protection Agency press office, Sept. 29

EPA website, summary of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule

Website, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Press release, House Speaker John Boehner, Sept. 23

Press release, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Sept 23

Environmental Protection Agency, "Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Federal Implementation Plans to Reduce Interstate Transport of Fine Particulate Matter and Ozone in 27 States; Correction of SIP Approvals for 22 States," June 2011

Congressional record, transcript of floor debate, Sept. 22-23

Environmental Protection Agency, Fact sheet, Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

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Earl Blumenauer says delaying air pollution rules will kill 34,000 people a year

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