* EPA: money fighting pollution is preventive medicine
* Debate on this year's budget continues
By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect citizens from premature death and other health problems would be gutted if Congress slashes funding as threatened by Republican lawmakers, its chief said on Wednesday.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have been trying to cut the EPA's budget for this year, saying its regulations on clean air and water hurt businesses.
"Big polluters would flout legal restrictions on dumping contaminants into the air, into rivers and onto the ground," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
Jackson said every dollar that goes to protecting federal clean air and clean water laws saves as much as $20 or $30 in costs for health problems requiring visits to hospitals.
"I'm simply saying it's preventive medicine," Jackson said.
The EPA released a report this week that said cutting pollution under the Clean Air Act will save $20 trillion by 2020 in health costs. It will also have prevented 230,000 premature deaths annually from heart attacks, and other health problems that can be brought on by smokestack pollutants such as soot, it said.
Congress passed a stopgap spending bill on Wednesday that keeps the government going for two weeks, but did nothing to resolve a bitter debate over this year's budget. [ID:nN02237398].
Before Congress came to the agreement, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill that would have slashed the EPA's 2011 budget by about 30 percent.
Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 would trim the EPA's budget by far less. His budget released last month would cut the budget $1.3 billion, or about 13 percent, to $9 billion with reductions in a clean diesel program and in Great Lakes restoration projects.
Senator James Inhofe, a Republican, said the cuts in Obama's 2012 EPA budget were "bait and switch" because the funding for the popular water programs will likely be replaced later by Congress. Inhofe, a climate skeptic who is writing a book on global warming called "The Hoax," said he wants the budget for the EPA's programs on regulating greenhouse gases to be cut.
The EPA began regulating greenhouses gases from the biggest polluters in January by requiring them to obtain permits.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress want to stop or delay the EPA from regulating the gases.
The agency plans to propose performance standards on power plants in July and on oil refiners in December that would limit their greenhouse gas emissions.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Gregorio