Editorial: Trump and Pruitt are sending bad air our way

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Last week, on a meandering return to New Hampshire from points south, we passed through Pennsylvania coal country. We passed signs for Minersville, East Mines and Port Carbon. The abandoned town of Centralia, where a fire in the anthracite mines that honeycomb the Earth has been burning since at least 1962, was nearby. In Centralia, or what’s left of it, smoke and steam rise from cracks in the pavement and carbon monoxide levels make the area uninhabitable.

As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal,” and his EPA appointee, Scott Pruitt, has been doing all he can to fill the skies with smoke again. Trump and Pruitt moved quickly to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, rules that pushed states to abandon coal-fired power plants in favor of renewable energy. In a decision that literally bodes ill for New Hampshire, the Trump administration has allowed nine states that are home to major sources of pollution to escape the tighter controls called for under the plan.

The antiquated but huge coal-fired power plants in Midwestern states such as Ohio and Kentucky are a major source of the pollution that contributes to New England’s often unhealthy air. They are one of the reasons why the region has some of the nation’s highest asthma rates: 10.2 percent of New Hampshire adults have asthma, according to the CDC. The rates in Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont are 12 percent, 11.6 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively. The cost in terms of human health, lost productivity, shortened life spans and medical expenses are enormous.

Pruitt was an execrable choice to head the EPA and one ethical lapse after another, along with his paranoia and arrogance, could soon send him off to join the long list of ousted or resigned Trump administration officials. That might not spell the end of the administration’s attack on clean air and water, however.

In line to become the EPA’s second in command is Andrew Wheeler, a coal industry lobbyist and former aide to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, one of the nation’s foremost climate change deniers.

In December, eight New England area states sued the EPA to force the agency to act to reduce emissions from the Midwestern and Southern power plants that are to blame for a majority of the Northeast’s air quality problems. Though New Hampshire is among the downwind states, it is not a party to the lawsuit. It should be.

Despite the fantasies of Pruitt and Trump, and their ties to the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists’ cash, coal is not coming back. In 2016, according to the federal Energy Information Institute, New Hampshire obtained more energy from wind power, 2.3 percent of total generation, than from coal, at 2.2 percent. The cost of energy from alternative sources continues to fall, though Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels and other measures threaten the transition to renewable energy, and natural gas remains cheap and abundant. More states are setting renewable energy goals that leave no room for coal.

No means has been found to douse the mine fires that have been burning beneath what was once Centralia, Pa., for more than half a century. But there is a way to douse the coal-fired dreams of people like Pruitt and Trump. It’s called an election.