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Clearing Beijing's air

Ever wonder what life in the United States would be like without a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? The people of China have gotten a whiff of what happens when there are minimal pollution controls, and they are choking on it.

That the air in Beijing is badly polluted is not exactly a new development, but this is: Now, it's gotten so bad that the complaints are showing up in state-run media where the crisis is not only recognized but the need to be open and honest about it is, too.

Photographs coming out of the Chinese capital tell the story — air pollution so thick and toxic that it looks like a bad science fiction movie with some kind of zombies or monsters the only missing element. Last Saturday, the U.S. Embassy's rooftop air pollution monitor recorded a 755 on a scale that goes to 500, hitting a level of toxicity as much as 40-fold above levels recommended by the World Health Organization. At least one manufacturer and all construction sites were shut down to try to reduce the amount of particulates in the air.

Going outside has required wearing a surgical mask. The number of people going into the Peking University People's Hospital emergency room suffering a heart attack doubled over the weekend. Children and the elderly were warned to stay indoors.

What accounts for this deadly smog? The same sorts of sources of pollution that can plague areas of the U.S.: coal-burning power plants, vehicle emissions and manufacturing. The problem for Beijing is made worse by its geographic circumstances and weather that trapped the pollution around the city for days.

China's full-throttle growth policies have obviously made conditions in that country among the worst on the planet. An estimated 16 of the most air-polluted cities in the world are located in China. But that's always been downplayed by the government and the state-controlled media as the equivalent of a "bad fog."

Not so this time around. In recent days, several state-run newspapers and websites have been reporting much more candidly on the pollution and the health problems associated with it. In an editorial, the Global Times warned that the development trends can't continue and that the government should publish "truthful environmental data to the public."

That call for transparency is a welcome development with significant ramifications. The Chinese policies aren't just harming the country's own citizens. The rise of Chinese coal-powered plants has been a prime source of additional greenhouse gases and has contributed mightily to global warming that poses a threat to all.

Yet even in the U.S., the EPA has faced considerable opposition over the regulatory agency's efforts to curb the pollution spewing out of coal-fired power plants. Last summer, a federal appeals court tossed out the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that protected downwind states from such pollution when it blows in from elsewhere. That was particularly bad news for Maryland where a significant portion of pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide come from coal-fired Midwestern power plants.

Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to complain that the EPA has been too aggressive in its regulation of power plant emissions and its regulations have harmed the coal industry. Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recently observed that this position — standing up for polluters over the people — puts them at odds with the views of a majority of Americans.

Perhaps the GOP ought to make a pilgrimage to Beijing and see if the economic boon experienced in China is worth the price its citizens are paying — and will continue to pay for years to come. Such "job creation" hardly seems a bargain when it's offset by sickness, disease and death. And make no mistake, that's what China's perennial state of "orange alerts" represents.

Whether Beijing has truly learned its lesson because of one particularly bad weekend of smog remains to be seen, of course. But when pollution gets bad enough, even the most totalitarian states are forced to acknowledge that something is wrong. Here or there, public opinion matters — as does the opportunity to breathe.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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