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Clean air for the new year - Martha Carr

As of Jan. 1, we can all breathe a little easier than we have in a very long time, but it almost didn't happen.

Take note, because it's yet another small sign that things are changing for the better for the average taxpayer. We have finally begun to stand up for ourselves. This time the benefits cover not only our wallets, but the well-being of every family member.

The first phase of the 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Interstate Rule, or CAIR, went into effect on the first day of the new year. Coal fired power plants in 28 eastern states and the District of Columbia are required to reduce millions of tons of smog and particulate-forming pollution in the form of nitrogen oxides, which are deadly to human beings.

The EPA calls the efforts the largest reduction in air pollution in over a decade.

The second phase will come in 2010 with a reduction in sulfur dioxide, and a third phase in 2015, which calls for further reductions in both air pollutants. The EPA estimates that by 2015, the changes will prevent 17,000 premature deaths, 22,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 12,300 hospital admissions, 1.7 million lost work days and 500,000 lost school days, and result in $85-$100 billion in health benefits, and almost $2 billion in visibility benefits.

The EPA estimates that the savings to the average taxpayer are 25 times the cost of compliance. Now, here's the twist. A group of utility companies, led by Duke Energy out of North Carolina, filed a lawsuit to do away with CAIR, and in July of 2008 it looked like they had succeeded. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court vacated the act in response to the lawsuit that stated the EPA overreached their jurisdiction.

Once again, it looked like the average taxpayer took it on the chin. However, there was a postscript this time.

The public took notice, and in an appeal led by the EPA, the Environmental Defense Fund and several states, most prominently North Carolina, the courts were asked to save the act and with it a substantial number of American lives. On December 23rd, the ruling was reversed and CAIR was temporarily reinstated on behalf of the common good with the expectation that the new administration would address any flaws.

That means that rather than once again giving a large corporation another kind of bailout -- this time in the form of the air we breathe -- the average guy got the break.

The status quo would have been to start over from scratch, while no action was taken. Instead, millions of Americans are going to be breathing a little easier each day.

Just like there have been a lot of unforeseen consequences of our past environmental policies, such as global warming, this act will most likely have positive effects for years to come that will only be seen in hindsight. Every time we act on behalf of the common good, which means everyone around us and not just the powerful few, we make it more likely for other benefits to emerge for us as well.

The opposite of that has been proven time and again recently, to the point where some wondered if we were capable of making a decision on behalf of the individual voters. The first mega-bailouts seemed to prove that tired old axiom one more time, particularly after the executives at AIG took that ill-conceived vacation with bailout money while thousands of individual homeowners were evicted and put on the street.

But then, the bailouts failed miserably and perhaps, thankfully, and woke us all up to the notion that working really hard to save large institutions, while sacrificing ourselves may not be the best way to go about things.

We have spent decades ignoring the bigger picture and blithely leaving it to corporations and legislators in the naïve hope they were enough to protect our interests. At last, we are taking it all back as another welcoming sign of a new era in America where we speak up and act on our own behalf consistently, loudly and effectively. Keep up the good work.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.