Guest commentary: Protect the agency that protects our environment |

Guest commentary: Protect the agency that protects our environment

Jill Ryan
Eagle County Commissioner

As a Colorado native, I have long said that “health” should be our state brand.

We love outdoor activities and make the Rocky Mountains our playground. We have bounties of farmer’s markets and community gardens. We ride our bikes for miles and miles, get our flu shots and wear our seat belts. Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the U.S. We are intentional in our health habits, so when asked, “What keeps you healthy?” I doubt many people would answer, “The Environmental Protection Agency.”

Created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the EPA safeguards air and water quality, prevents toxic waste from contaminating the soil, regulates greenhouse gas emissions, and protects the ozone layer. Smog, mercury, lead, arsenic, radiation, asbestos, carbon dioxide and methane are just a few of the harmful substances under the agency’s purview.

The EPA uses state health agencies to accomplish its mission of “protecting human health and the environment,” providing $295 million to Colorado over the past five years. Public health issues such as asthma attacks, birth defects, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer have been prevented because of monitoring and enforcement activities.

So, it’s concerning that an agency so crucial to human health is facing severe budget cuts. The proposed 2018 federal budget could render the EPA at the lowest funding level since the 1970s, and lowest staffing levels since the Reagan administration. Remember Flint, Michigan? Lead contamination in the drinking water was responsible for “irreversible” effects of on the city’s children. Issues like this are not more widespread because of the EPA.

A not-so-distant local example occurred in 1984, with the flooding of the Eagle Mine above Minturn. The heavy metals turned the Eagle River orange, killing the fish and threatening the valley’s drinking water As a result, the mine and the town of Gilman were placed on the EPA’s Superfund site list, and cleanup began.

Under the current budget proposal, funding for Superfund sites could be reduced by 30 percent. Colorado has 20 sites on the Superfund national priorities list.

Other areas on the chopping block include federal research on the impacts of environmental hazards to human health; state-level watershed protection; and the monitoring and management of leaking underground storage containers, of which Colorado has a backlog of 500. Even the Energy Star Program, which is a simple way for consumers to identify products that save money and protect the environment, is proposed to be eliminated. It’s in good company with 49 other environmental protection programs that would end under the president’s 2018 budget plan.

It is said that the health of the land is tied to the health of the people. No one enters the voting booth in favor of dirtier air, increased pollution or water unfit for drinking. We expect the government to protect us in areas that we cannot individually control, like our physical environment. Eagle County government invests heavily in monitoring river health and air quality, reducing carbon emissions, conducting restaurant inspections, responding to disease outbreaks and other environmental health hazards, but we cannot do it alone. We need partners at both the state and federal level.

I recently went to Washington, D.C., as a guest of the National Wildlife Federation to lobby members of Congress to fully fund the EPA. Of the 535 members, I suspect that not many come from a state like Colorado, where an overwhelming 71 percent of residents participate in outdoor recreation. The outdoor-recreation industry itself accounts for $28 billion in consumer spending.

What is apparent is that Colorado’s congressional delegation needs to hear from us. They need to be able to stand on the Congressional floor and say, “My constituents are vehemently against this.” I urge you to call your U.S. Senators and Representative today and tell them to protect the agency that protects our environment. Tell them that we need full funding for the EPA. Now is the time to act! The 2018 budget adoption, having been kicked down the road, is set to occur in early December.

Every Monday, The Aspen Times is hosting a guest column from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.