John Hanger is president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), a public interest membership organization that works to create a just future where nature, communities, and the economy thrive.

Monday, 9 Dec 2002

HARRISBURG, Penn.

The line from the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy — “Life is what happens while you are making other plans” — certainly sums up our recent experiences at PennFuture.

Usually, late November and early December are slower times for us. The legislature is out. Many of our staff and colleagues are on vacation. And we all get to take a deep breath and try to unbury our desks from the accumulated paper blizzard.

But not this year. Thanks to many factors — the machinations of the Bush administration, our state’s transition to a new governor, and the Pennsylvania lame duck legislative session — this has been a very busy time.

Along with everyone else in the environmental community, we’ve been working hard to counter the federal government’s spin on its cutback of the Clean Air Act. We have been lucky to be able to rely on the great work of Eric Schaeffer and the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.; on Lou Piels of the Rockefeller Family Fund in New York City; and on Armond Cohen, Conrad Schneider, Jane Kochersperger, and others of the Clean Air Task Force in Boston. They have helped us enormously with reports and studies to show exactly how the administration’s attack on clean air will affect Pennsylvanians.

More than one million people in our state already suffer from respiratory problems, most of them children and the elderly. And more than 2,200 Pennsylvanians die each year from pollution from the “dirty dinosaur” power plants both in-state and to our west. The government’s failure to force utilities to clean up these old plants has already created grave health risks here, and the Bush plan would halt any progress we have made.

This is not an academic issue for me; it is one I feel deeply. I have the joy every year of coaching a girls’ soccer team, and each year, more and more of the players in every league have breathing problems. It isn’t unusual for many of the girls to have to use inhalers, and on hot, muggy days with over-the-top soot and smog readings, I worry that these great athletes might be risking their long-term health. It is just so great to see young women strive and achieve, and no one should have to worry that serious health risks are the price of “reaching for the stars.”

So when the Bush administration made their Orwellian announcement that they were going to gut New Source Review regulations in order to clean up the air (this decade’s version of “Destroy the village in order to save it”), the PennFuture staff all shifted into high gear to make sure that every reporter covering this in Pennsylvania understood exactly how bad this new policy would be for our state.

And we were pretty successful. We got the truth out to the public and the administration’s attempts to greenwash the move failed.

But we didn’t stop there. We made sure to reach out to our governor-elect and his advisors to let them know how important it is for Pennsylvania to protect public health from pollution, even when the federal government can’t or won’t.

But that — and our work to make our state, and our state government, leaders for the environment — is another tale, one that I will tell tomorrow.