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Crisis is not free pass to pollute our planet

April 1, 2020

Houston Chronicle Op-Ed
By Robin Schneider

Elizabeth Conley / Staff photographer
Medical groups agree that asthma, cardiopulmonary obstructive disorder, heart disease and various cancers are linked to industrial pollution.

Under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Greg Abbott on March 13 and President Donald Trump on March 26 relaxed environmental compliance rules for petrochemical plants and other big polluters. By setting aside these vital protective measures, the president and governor appear to take advantage of an economic and health emergency in order to allow more profits and pollution from existing industrial plants and to speed up the permitting of proposed new fossil fuel and plastics plants. The public health and planet cannot take it.

Instead, both the Trump and Abbott administrations have the opportunity in this crisis to powerfully change the course of history by setting aside politics and profits.

Many Texans have preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. This disease has not been directly linked to industrial toxins in our air and water. However, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Society, the American Cancer Society, and numerous other medical organizations and physicians line up behind the facts. The underlying conditions pervasive in our families and communities — asthma, cardio-pulmonary obstructive disorder, heart disease and various cancers that make people vulnerable — are linked to industrial pollution. Now, public health researchers point to a study done on SARS, a virus closely related to COVID-19, which found that people who breathed polluted air were about twice as likely to die from the infection.

We have a highly problematic track record in Texas. This newest license to pollute is an extension of a bad loophole the Abbott administration created after the Hurricane Harvey floods when nearly half a billion gallons of corporate polluters’ abandoned industrial waste full of cancer-causing toxins flowed into waterways and homes on the Texas coast.

In recent years environmental groups have sued and won against three of the world’s largest oil companies for “upset emissions,” illegal amounts of benzene and other hazardous pollutants in the Houston area. Like Trump’s, Abbott’s order continues on that wrong track by allowing industrial polluters a free pass to forego protective practices, to disregard the public health in existing operations and to fail to clean up afterwards.

It is vital to assure that the public’s health is not compromised by toxic pollution, especially now when vulnerable populations are at a great risk of hospitalization and death. Both Trump and Abbott certainly need to engage governmental powers in the COVID-19 crisis to both protect the public health and to help people meet real, essential human needs — food, homes and health care. However, they should not use the crisis to jeopardize our future beyond the crisis with bad environmental policy. We must and can avoid worsening our ongoing background load of toxins.

Trump and Abbott must collaborate strongly now across the aisle to not only support the public health system, they must promote clean, sustainable and more resilient solutions moving forward.

To protect the public health and avoid further climate change disaster, Trump and Abbott must immediately reinstate protective, legally-required pollution controls. The teams of workers currently charged with implementing protective practices at existing plants must receive the best possible protective gear, training and just compensation for their work. All permitting of proposed polluting facilities must be put on hold until legally-required procedures are firmly established and followed. Then, Trump and Abbott, or whoever is elected next, must work as soon as possible to establish the highest standard practices of pollution prevention and implement long-term solutions — a transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy through renewable power that runs clean transportation, energy efficiency and a reduction of plastics production. We all need and want the healthiest possible people and planet.

Robin Schneider is the executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

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