All across Rhode Island and the United States, people are reflecting on the challenges, accomplishments and lessons learned from the past year, and making plans for the year ahead. For the environment and our health, 2011 was full of battles, but there is cause for celebration as we ring in the New Year, especially for Rhode Islanders.
Over the past year, our core environmental and public health laws faced an unprecedented assault by Big Oil and other polluters in Washington, D.C., and despite that, we finished the year with the promise for cleaner air, cleaner water and better health for all Americans still intact. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized rules that will protect Rhode Islanders from toxic mercury pollution and from dangerous smog and soot pollution blowing in from other states’ power plants. This will mean fewer asthma attacks, heart attacks and other health problems for residents across the state. In addition, the president announced new standards for cars and trucks that will cut our oil use by the same amount that we import from Saudi Arabia and Iraq each year and make huge reductions in the pollution that causes global warming, which threatens our coastline and very way of life.
These victories were not won easily. In fact, at the very same time these announcements were being made, some in Congress were pushing to undercut them and roll back the laws that are in place to clean our air and water and protect our health. This year in the U.S. House alone, lawmakers cast an incredible 168 roll call votes on measures that would hamstring EPA and allow more pollution into our air and water and more destruction of our treasured places.
But thankfully, the worst of these attacks in Congress have been defeated so far, and Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse were on the front lines standing up to the polluters to protect our environment and our health this year. They should be applauded for their stalwart leadership.
Both of our senators not only voted against and ultimately defeated attempts to roll back clean air laws, but they led the charge to defend standards to cut dangerous smog, soot and mercury pollution. In his role as the Chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on EPA and the Interior Department, Senator Reed succeeded in blocking proposals that would undermine the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and at the same time worked to increase funding for national parks and to continue funding for state wildlife programs.
Senator Whitehouse was one of the first and most frequent to stand up publicly and call on Senate leadership and the president to protect our health and defend clean air protections against attacks. Just this month, he organized a letter to the president from 16 Senators in support of EPA’s newly final rule to cut mercury pollution from power plants by 90 percent and save up to 11,000 lives each year – a rule that is under direct attack in Congress.
In addition, both of our senators have been leading other efforts to protect our environment this year. Senator Whitehouse has been a champion for protecting waterways like Narragansett Bay from pollution, has led measures to protect coastal communities and natural resources from the effects of global warming, and has introduced a bipartisan bill to establish a National Endowment for the Oceans to protect our oceans and the communities that rely on them, like those in Rhode Island. He also has used his role on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to highlight the need for federal investment in water infrastructure – he used old rusty pipes from Kingston to demonstrate the problem and outlined that investing in infrastructure means both cleaner water and new jobs in construction.
Senator Reed introduced a bipartisan bill to promote environmental education – the No Child Left Inside Act of 2011 – and also helped to restore $900 million to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program that provides aid to low-income families and seniors with their energy bills.
Both senators are also strident supporters of more renewable energy, including developing wind farms off of Rhode Island’s coast. They spoke out this month in a letter to the president urging the extension of federal clean energy incentives that are critical to the continued growth and success of the wind and solar industry, and they are both original co-sponsors of a bill to jumpstart offshore wind in the United States. In addition, Senator Whitehouse co-authored an opinion editorial in the Huffington Post with three other senators on clean energy.
As we look ahead to 2012, we know we will face an even bigger showdown between the most polluting oil and coal companies and the health of families and children in Rhode Island and across the country. We have a daunting fight ahead, but we have notable victories from the past year to build on, and Rhode Islanders are lucky to have two of the biggest environmental champions representing them in the U.S. Senate.
Channing Jones is a field associate with Environment Rhode Island.