A High-Stakes Fight Over New Pollution Rules Threatens America’s Already Toxic Air
On October 26, 1948, residents of the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania woke up to find themselves enshrouded in a stagnant cloud of pollution. Four days later, when the blanket of warm air that trapped the pollutants finally lifted, 20 people were dead and over half of the population—7,000 people—had become ill. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and metal dust spewed forth from the four-mile-long local steel plant were the culprits.
Air pollution is one of the world’s oldest environmental problems. By 1306, soot was so pervasive in London that the burning of coal was temporarily outlawed. Five hundred years later, in 1854’s Hard Times, Charles Dickens described an all-too-typical cityscape of 19th century America: “It was a town of machines and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever and never got uncoiled.” In parts of the Midwest, the smoke and soot was so dense that the cities of Chicago and Cincinnati passed ordinances to control emissions from furnaces and locomotives, the nation’s first air pollution statutes. In 1909, during Great Britain’s industrial revolution, over 1,000 people died in Glasgow, Scotland because of smog. It was still a major problem 50 years later when, in 1952, 4,000 were killed by a week of London’s “killer fog.”
Now, on the cusp of the 21st century, we still can’t breathe easy. Although air quality has improved over the past few decades, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that over 125 million Americans breathe unhealthy air—almost half of the U.S. population. Heart and lung disease aggravated by air pollutants result in as many as 64,000 premature deaths a year. That’s more annual fatalities than car accidents cause. Every day, 14 people in the United States die from asthma. (Many are African-Americans, who die from the condition at a rate six times that of Caucasians.) Worldwide, air pollution harms the health of four to five billion people a year, according to a study conducted by Cornell University. That’s more than two-thirds of the global population.
Children, who breathe in twice as much air as adults, are the most vulnerable of all. Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in New York, says that “Despite advances in therapy, asthma attack rates among American children have more than doubled in the past decade.” Even worse, “Death rates are also rising,” he says. Asthma is now the most common cause of hospitalization among American children, and the condition is becoming more prevalent among adults as well. As Ned Ford, energy chair of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter points out, “Even if you don’t know someone with asthma, your insurance company does.”
Something In The Air
We breathe once every four seconds, 16 times a minute, 960 times an hour, almost 8.5 million times a year. With each breath, we inhale hundreds of airborne substances, some naturally occurring, some the by-product of human activity. For those of us who live in cities—that is, most of us—many of those substances are pollutants that may increase our risk of respiratory problems and cancer. Smog, or ground-level ozone, aggravates asthma, and it can also reduce lung capacity and decrease the body’s ability to fight off infection. Soot, or particulate matter, can cause bronchitis, chronic lung disease and irritation of the eyes and throat. Many hazardous air pollutants, such as vinyl chloride, arsenic and benzene, are carcinogens.
Even people who don’t experience severe health problems from air pollution suffer in subtle yet significant ways. As Alfred Kneese wrote in the journal Economics and the Environment, the effects of airborne pollutants “range in severity from the lethal to the merely annoying.” Not only can air pollution contribute to serious conditions like lung damage, bronchitis and asthma, it can cause nasal congestion, breathing difficulty, and can even prolong the common cold.
Air pollution is just the kind of broad, all-pervasive problem for which federal regulations were designed. Everyone breathes, so everyone needs to be protected from airborne pollutants. Congress finally recognized that need in 1970 and passed groundbreaking legislation to control emissions of air pollutants—with nary a dissenting vote. The Clean Air Act (the original version of which passed in 1963, but which didn’t gain real muscle until a much stronger law was enacted in 1970, then reauthorized in 1977 and 1990) was enacted to protect human health with “an adequate margin of safety”—a directive that EPA Administrator Carol Browner calls “the most important provision of the Clean Air Act.”
The Act required EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to reduce levels of the pollutants most harmful to human health. Six of the most prevalent and health-threatening air pollutants were targeted for reduction: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, particulate matter and ozone. Standards were set for each of these “criteria” pollutants based on the best science available at the time.
In many ways, the new rules worked. Despite population growth and a juggernaut economy, emissions of criteria air pollutants fell 29 percent over the past three decades. Lead levels, in particular, decreased considerably, thanks to federal and state regulation. But concentrations of other regulated pollutants (such as hard-to-control soot and smog) remained high, knocking some areas of the country-like the east coast, Midwest and southern California—into the “non-attainment” dog house.
In 1997, recognizing that the standards it had set in the 1970s and 1980s were no longer sufficient to protect public health, EPA drafted new NAAQS for two of the most harmful and persistent criteria pollutants: soot and smog. Soot was originally limited to 10 microns, but the new rules sought to control even finer particles, those at least 2.5 microns across. (These minuscule particles are dwarfed by even the narrowest human hair, which is 40 microns wide. They lodge deep in the lungs and stay there, causing long-term damage.) Allowable levels of smog were reduced from 0.12 parts per million (ppm) to 0.08 ppm. (To get an idea of how small this is, consider that one part per million is analogous to one penny in $10,000.)
Most air quality experts agree that better standards for ozone and particulates are needed. But are the 1997 standards good enough? “Yes, absolutely,” says Frank O’Donnell of the Washington, DC-based Clean Air Trust. “They were an updating of the science and clearly would provide better health protection—and to more people.” EPA says that incidences of respiratory problems in children alone would decrease by one million cases a year.
But sales of inhalers aren’t likely to go down anytime soon. In May of 1999, in a case brought to court by a consortium of trucking, oil, and automobile companies and coal-dependent states, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that EPA shouldn’t have been granted the authority to develop the new standards. Even though the Clean Air Act mandates that EPA protect human health with “an adequate margin of safety,R
21; the court said that tightening the standards to ensure that safety represented an “unconstitutional delegation of power.” The decision flouted 64 years worth of jurisprudence; the courts have consistently upheld EPA’s authority in every similar case since 1935. Browner called the ruling “bizarre.”
Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, applauds the decision. “Congress has access to experts, just as EPA does,” he says. “Congress should be responsible for making regulations.” By shifting the burden of standard-setting back onto elected government officials, he says, the rules are more likely to represent the will of the people.
Yet the people seem content with EPA’s role in the regulatory process. In a recent poll commissioned by the American Lung Association, 77 percent of respondents trust the EPA to set clean air standards. Only 51 percent trust Congress.
“That the Congress chooses to delegate certain technical issues to an expert agency is a good, not a bad, thing,” says Dan Esty, a professor at the Yale Law School and a former EPA assistant administrator. “We need our laws and regulations to be undergirded by more analytical sophistication, not less, as would be the case if Congress were called upon to set precise standards.”
In his dissenting opinion, Judge David Tatel pointed out that “the Supreme Court has sustained equally broad delegations to other agencies, including…the Attorney General’s authority to regulate new drugs that pose an ‘imminent hazard to public safety.’”
Interestingly, the court did not question the science underlying the new rules. “Setting those standards was an excruciatingly laborious process. They were not set on a whim,” says O’Donnell. In fact, they were based on “the most intense review of any study EPA has undertaken in its history,” involving 250 peer-reviewed scientific studies on particulate matter and ozone, plus three congressional reviews. Browner is mystified: “They said everything we did was right, then they threw in the Constitution,” she says.
The implications of the ruling could extend far beyond the Clean Air Act. The efficacy of most environmental laws relies on EPA’s authority to regulate threats to human health and the environment, from hazardous waste to wetlands destruction. If the court’s decision stands, Browner says, “Almost all of our environmental laws will be turned on their heads.”
As the debate over EPA’s new standards rages on, the question remains: Why are we still breathing bad air? The answer is a complex one, involving everything from regulatory shortcomings to industry subterfuge to consumer culture. Without a doubt, industrial emissions are responsible for a large share of air pollution. In particular, coal-burning electric power plants are big polluters, accounting for 57 percent of the industrial pollution in the U.S. Unfortunately, they’re now polluting even more. A study by the Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that coal use has gone up 13 percent.
When Congress deregulated the electric industry in 1992, old, “grandfathered” plants, which don’t have to comply with the same standards as plants built more recently, gained an undeserved advantage in the new marketplace. “It’s not fair for one plant to be subject to these rules and not another,” says John Coequyt of the Environmental Working Group. “It might have made sense at the time to grandfather some of these plants, but now, 30 years later, it’s time for them to be cleaned up.” That may finally happen, at least for some of the biggest polluters. In recent months, EPA has found that many of the oldest, dirtiest power plants, which have operated for decades within the haven of a Clean Air Act loophole, may have violated the law by expanding their power output without installing the necessary pollution control devices. The plants could be ordered to pay millions of dollars in fines and, finally, clean up their act.
Fossil fuel-dependent industries and states are sounding the now familiar alarm of financial ruin and mass unemployment as an inevitable consequence of tighter controls, warning that they “could deal a crushing blow to U.S. business.” But history makes their claims dubious at best. The same “Chicken Little” argument is used every time new environmental regulations are passed or new standards are issued, but the cost of compliance rarely matches industry estimates. According to the Office of Technology Assessment, compliance expenditures for all environmental regulations combined amount to 1.5 percent of the U.S. gross national product.
Over the past 30 years, environmental rules have forced the development of new, cleaner technologies—often at lower costs than originally predicted. In 1994, four years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act amendments, Mobil admitted, “[We] opposed some of that legislation, because we thought it might be too costly for the consumer. In retrospect, we were wrong. Air quality is improving, at a cost acceptable to the motoring public.” The estimated cost of implementing the new standards is about $86.5 billion a year. But the benefits amount to $120 billion, according to EPA. Esty points out that “Environmental protection investments always come at some cost. The question is whether the cost is worth paying.” When it comes to the air they breathe, most Americans seem to think it is: According to the American Lung Association study, more than eight out of 10 voters want stricter air quality standards.
The Clean Air Act prevents EPA from considering cost when deciding on standards for air pollutants. Henry Waxman, a former Congressman from California and one of the authors of the 1990 version of the Act, is confident that the statute as written has succeeded. “In the Clean Air Act we’ve achieved what the public demands—economic growth and environmental progress,” he wrote in a 1997 Washington Post editorial.
One complaint often heard from critics of the Clean Air Act is that it imposes an “unfunded mandate” on the states. The burden is on the states to come up with a federally-allowable plan to achieve EPA standards. To help offset the cost, the President’s Clean Air Partnership Fund was created to make federal money available to cities and states nationwide for air pollution mitigation. But Congress has threatened to cut the fund’s proposed $200 million budget by 80 percent.
The Clean Air Act does provide industry some flexibility in complying with its directives. For instance, the 1990 amendments include a provision that allows utilities to “trade” emissions allowances. One allowance equals the right to emit one ton of sulfur dioxide per year. A facility that goes beyond the standards accumulates pollution credits, which it can then either sell or save to use later. Although some environmentalists contend that emissions trading merely rewards power plants for polluting, even they admit that the program has met with some success, at least so far. EPA reports that emissions of sulfur dioxide have decreased by 1.7 million tons from 1990 levels—at a much lower cost than Congress originally anticipated. Over 23 million trading allow
ances have exchanged hands in more than 660 transactions, worth a total of $2 billion.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Human beings aren’t the only ones who would benefit from stricter controls on air pollutants. In addition to threatening human health, ozone can stunt plants’ ability to produce, grow leaves and store food, making them more susceptible to disease, insects and extreme weather. In high-ozone areas, yields of agricultural crops such as soybeans and wheat have been shown to be more susceptible to adverse conditions. According to EPA estimates, the new standards for ozone would reduce the yield loss of major agricultural crops and commercial forests by almost $500 million.
Air pollution can easily become water pollution. When sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from burned fossil fuels mix with water and oxygen in the air, they form sulfuric and nitric acids. These acids fall to the ground in precipitation (not just rain) , damaging mountain-top trees like spruce and acidifying lakes and streams. The most acidic rain on record fell on Wheeling, West Virginia in the 1980s. It had a pH of 1.4, making it almost as acidic as battery acid. Although things have improved somewhat since then, acid rain is still a problem. A National Surface Waters Survey found that hundreds of lakes in New York’s Adirondack Mountains were too acidic to support a host of fish species. The survey also found that of the 1,000 lakes included in the study, 75 percent were affected by acid rain. Some lakes and their estuaries are completely barren of sensitive species like brook trout.
Polluted air can also wreak havoc on climate, impede visibility, contaminate soil, harm wildlife and damage buildings and monuments. In the 17 eastern states, annual air pollution damage to buildings and other structures—including the Statue of Liberty—so far has amounted to about $5 billion.
Grounded air pollutants can end up harming people, too. In fact, “a lot of air pollutants don’t get into our bodies through breathing but through eating,” says Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream (see Conversations, this issue) . “These contaminants fall onto the ground and land on plants directly from our garden or from the farmer’s fields.” She adds that we’re also exposed to pollutants indirectly when we consume the meat of animals that were fed contaminated plants. “That’s the lesson of ecology, that all aspects [of the environment] are interwoven,” says Steingraber.
Electric utility plants powered by coal or oil (most often coal) account for about 70 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 30 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States each year. When car and truck exhaust is added in, over 20 million tons of SO2 and NOx are emitted into the atmosphere annually.
When fully implemented in 2010, the Acid Rain Program, passed as part of the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, will offer some relief. The 1990 Amendments require that the maximum release of SO2 must be reduced to 10 million tons per year to decrease acid deposition. By lowering sulfate levels, the Acid Rain Program will reduce the frequency and severity of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions and will protect crops, wildlife, forests and buildings. The Program has aesthetic implications, too. Sulfate particles account for more than 50 percent of the visibility reduction in the eastern part of the United States, including national parks like the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Acid Rain Program is expected to improve the visual depth in eastern states by as much as 30 percent.
Sulfates aren’t the only air pollutants that end up contaminating our water. Mercury, a toxic substance emitted into the air by medical waste and municipal incinerators, can be deposited in streams and lakes, where it is taken in by fish. “Coal-burning electric power plants put out quite a lot of mercury,” says Guy Williams, urban ecosystem program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. NWF scientist Michael Murray adds, “There haven’t been long-term controls for mercury like there have been for the criteria air pollutants [such as sulfur dioxide and lead]. Unless there are, nothing’s likely to happen” to decrease mercury emissions.
The Clean Air Act does require EPA to ensure that standards for air pollutants also protect water bodies, but, Murray believes, “They’re not protective enough. Thirty-eight states have fish consumption advisories because the fish aren’t fit to eat.” In states with high concentrations of incinerators, he says, such as Michigan and Ohio, “every lake has a fish consumption advisory.”
Traffic pours in and out of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl,
which is wreathed in the country’s worst lung-challenging ozone haze.
Jorge Torres / Mercury Press
The regulatory loopholes that allow hazardous air pollutants like mercury to continue to foul both air and water may soon be closed. Under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, EPA has to control emissions of 188 hazardous air pollutants—many of them carcinogens. So far, standards have been issued for only 10. But in July of this year, the agency announced its new Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy, which will regulate 33 more, including mercury. The goal, defined in the Clean Air Act, is to reduce the risk of cancer from exposure to major sources of hazardous air pollutants to one in a million. EPA plans to issue the new regulations in 2004.
Dust In The Wind
Getting to the source of a problem is always the best way to solve it. But past efforts to reduce air pollution have partly focused on measuring air quality in specific states and then requiring them to come up with a plan to improve it. Air pollution knows no boundaries, however, and states downwind from highly polluted areas were getting the short end of the smokestack. In the same way that rain from Ohio ends up drenching New Hampshire, “westerlies” push millions of tiny bits of airborne pollutants across hundreds or even thousands of miles. States downwind from heavily industrialized areas are saddled with the double whammy of their own pollution plus bad air blown in from afar.
A two-year study by the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, a consortium consisting of 37 eastern states and DC in partnership with EPA, found that smog travels hundreds of miles from its original sources to begrime downwind environments. The entire eastern corridor from Boston to Baltimore is in violation of EPA’s current standards for ground-level ozone, and most of the so-called “non-attainment areas” for particulate matter, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and other major pollutants are concentrated in downwind areas as well—even though the cleanest burning coal-fired power plants are in the eastern U.S.
Much of the soot and smog wreaking havoc in eastern states (and even Canada) began as a puff in the smokestacks and tailpipes of the Midwest. “We have more of the older, larger and dirtier plants than most of the rest of the U.S.,” says Ned Ford of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. EPA is now trying to crack down on states generating “fugitive” emissions that escape their borders. No place is sacr
ed: Even Great Smokey Mountain National Park had 34 bad air days last year—a distinction that led the National Parks and Conservation Association to place the park on its “endangered” list.
A Look Toward The Future
Federal support for renewable energy, pursued with pioneer enthusiasm during the Carter administration, has been allowed to languish, even with Al Gore a heartbeat away from the Presidency. But wind, solar and geothermal (using the Earth’s subterranean “hot spots” to create energy) are just a few of the alternatives to fossil fuel-derived power. Not only is renewable energy better for the environment, it can be good for the economy, too: Investment in renewable energy creates two to five times as many jobs as investments in fossil fuel or nuclear power. And according to a study by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, a New York-based investment firm, the cleanest plants also make the wisest investments. Companies like California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, whose energy generation is mostly produced by non-fossil sources, top the list. Other large power companies seem to be taking their cue; even the colossal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) , the largest electricity generator in the U.S., recently announced plans to offer renewable energy to its eight million residential customers.
Although the renewable energy industry is far from reaching its potential—green energy makes up only two percent of all energy produced—some analysts are optimistic about its future. A boost from Congress soon may help stimulate the market for renewables: U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Jim Jeffords (R-VT) introduced a bill that requires electricity producers to offer a higher percentage of renewable power. It would also kill exemptions for old coal-fired plants.
Even some multinational companies are beginning to see the light. BP Amoco, one of the largest in the world, has invested in renewable energy, and in 1998 British Petroleum’s CEO publicly acknowledged that global warming is a real threat—and that oil consumption is largely to blame. Other major companies that are voluntarily decreasing emissions (thereby improving efficiency and cutting costs) are Xerox, 3M and Toyota.
Ultimately, though, the quality of the air we breath depends on us. By using our collective power as voters and consumers, we can reduce pollution, both directly and indirectly. We can choose alternative energy to power our homes, ensuring that deregulation of the utility industry improves the environment instead of degrading it further. We can buy cleaner cars, and let automobile manufacturers know that we care about what’s coming out of the tailpipe (see sidebar) . We can elect environmentally conscious government officials. Even simple, inexpensive actions can reap rich rewards: According to EPA, 175 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution a year can be saved just by replacing dirty air filters in air conditioners and furnaces. What to do with the old filter? Send it to your Representative as a reminder of how much farther we still have to go in cleaning up our air.