FEDERAL TRIANGLE: Clean Air-Bad Politics
In 1948, 20 people died and 6,000 became sick in Donora, Pa., when a smoke pall hung on the hills. In December 1952, when five days of stagnant air blanketed London, 3,600 to 3,800 people died from complications of breathing bad air. Both cases were mostly caused by soot and noxious gases belched from steel mills. A watershed for the environmental movement in the U.S. then came in 1962 with publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." The public awakened.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 made the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsible for establishing air pollution limits and enforcing rules and regulations. While created by President Nixon for political purposes to satisfy public demand and to defuse issues advanced by opponents, Congress wanted to gain control of EPA direction. Members of the House and Senate often made outrageous charges to EPA officials to enhance their image and show constituents a "commitment" to the idea of environmental protection. Industry, however, wanted time to understand new rules and develop ways to abide by them, but harbored fears that Congress would change policies, or that EPA would impose restrictions that would destabilize criteria by which pollution control investments were made. The Nixon Administration was concurrently trying to depress inflation, restrict spending in Congress and bolster employment for improved economic prospects. American industry associated with targeted emissions often questioned EPA air quality standards by attacking their scientific credibility. It was an ugly time.
A pivotal dichotomy then emerged in the public mind leading to a view among some bureaucrats that the populous was not willing to pay the price for clean air. The automobile, as the majority source of pollutant emissions, became a symbol for a choice between personal freedom in mobility and improving the environment; the thread of individualism woven into the American fabric seemed snagged. But by 1973, EPA and the automotive industry adopted the catalytic converter to reduce emissions by 85% in the 1975 model year, and by 1974, industrial sources reduced dust and smoke by 14% and sulfur dioxide by 25% from 1970 levels. The country was on a road to environmental recovery, but not without angst.
By 1989, half of all states incorporated threshold limit values in air pollution controls to limit public exposure to toxic emissions, but only six criteria pollutants are regulated in ambient air quality by federal government-ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead and particulates 10 microns or less in diameter. There is a continuing effort by EPA to regulate a long list (189 chemicals and metals) of so-called air toxics or other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), totaling 654 specific items, which is the battleground in air quality control today.
Since 1970, however, there was a 98.2% reduction in lead emissions (removal of tetraethyl lead from gasoline), a drop in all criteria pollutants except NOx (53.4% coming from on and off-road vehicles while all industry contributed 12.1%) and particulates (due to EPA data keeping changes to cover road dust).Table I shows a record of achievement between 1970 and 1998, during a time of national growth.
Outdoor air quality is deteriorated primarily by burning fossil fuels, with cars and electric utilities contributing 80% of the total load. Therefore, it is understandable that Congress wants to pass laws that show preference to non-combustion alternatives to generate power. Fortunately, most of these will never see the light of day, but a message reads the same as it did when EPA was formed: Congress wants to control things.
For example, H.R.2108, the Energy Security and Tax Incentive Policy Act of 2001, was established to change ways of computing tax credits for qualifying energy efficient property used in business. It contains laughable minutiae in excruciating detail on buying wind machines and other inefficient power plants that do not impact air quality. Not only is it not a federal role to be involved, the authors are grandstanding for wackos. Maybe I have put my finger on why Congress is trivial and people do not care.