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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nashua panel to discuss our pollution vs. our health

David Brooks

Many years ago, I visited India, a delightful trip that taught me plenty of valuable lessons, including this one: Anti-pollution laws can be our friend.

Gagging on the mix of diesel fumes, burning trash and industrial pollution that passed for oxygen in New Delhi gave me new appreciation for the decades of bureaucratic processes that have made it harder for other folks to send noxious stuff floating past my nose.

I’m sure our nation’s air pollution laws and regulations are flawed, inconsistent and far more expensive than they need to be, because that describes almost everything done by large groups of people.

The question is whether their accomplishments are worth the cost and bother, especially during an economic recession, and whether they should be expanded or curtailed.

Those are good questions, and they will be the topic of a panel discussion in Nashua City Hall on Wednesday, from noon-1:30 p.m. Everybody is welcome to the free event, although they ask that you RSVP first ( because lunch is being provided and a rough head count would be useful.

The event is billed as a “panel discussion on clean air and the impact on our health and environment.”

It was spurred by Congressional fights in Washington over Environmental Protection Agency rules coming into effect that target ground-level ozone (e.g., smog), mercury emissions by power plants and cross-state air pollution.

The discussion is sponsored by the Sierra Club and New Hampshire chapter of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the featured panelist is Curt Spaulding, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for New England.

What that lineup, I think the session is likely to lean toward the conclusion “Yup, the rules are worth it and should be expanded.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to discuss, however, which is why I have agreed to moderate the session.

The Sierra Club asked me to do that job because of my sterling work (my term, not theirs) moderating Science Cafe New Hampshire, the Concord public discussion sessions that started in the spring and will resume Sept. 21 with a session about vaccines.

Science Cafe has the advantage of being held in a bar – the Barley House, opposite the Statehouse – which is more fun than a City Hall auditorium, particularly when there’s a band playing upstairs. But I’m going to do my best to overcome the physical limitations and emulate the tone of the Science Cafes.

Those sessions have been great. Even when discussing contentious issues like climate change, the cafes have been light-hearted, yet informative, two hours plus of facts and polite disagreement, in pleasant contrast to “angry and fact-free,” the default tone for debate about governance these days.

That’s what we’ll be aiming for on Wednesday.

I’d also like to have the audience drive the discussion as much as possible. If you attend, bring specific questions about health, pollution and energy production.

This is a chance to find out exactly how the cost of pollution is calculated, why mercury is considered so bad, why some pollution control approaches work better than others, why ozone is bad down low but good up high, how much we can trust estimates of medical effects of pollution and other such real information.

It’s also a chance to avoid politics.

I will use my role as benign dictator to squelch anybody who wants to bash, malign, accuse or even mutter darkly about Political Party X or Political Movement Y or Political Group Z, or anything that smacks of such topics. That’s what the Internet is for.

If all this sounds good to you, take a long lunch break Wednesday and show up.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or