Skies will not be so clear under Bush initiative

In September, President George W. Bush introduced his “Clear Skies” initiative to Congress for discussion over the next six months in an attempt to get an environmental bill he can point to as an accomplishment.

But like his “Healthy Forest Initiative,” Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative is just another attempt to give an environmentally harmful bill an environmentally friendly name in the hopes voters won’t know the difference. Bush’s initiative will actually lower the pollution caps established by the Clean Air Act of 1970.

Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide have been linked to increased rates of asthma attacks, heart disease, lung disease, cancer and other illnesses that can lead to premature death for pregnant women, children, seniors and other at-risk populations. Under the Clean Air Act, a 1.25 million-ton cap on the amount of nitrogen oxides released through air pollution would be implemented by 2010. Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative would raise that to a 2.1 million-ton cap by 2008 and a 1.7 million-ton cap by 2018. This amounts to an increase of 450,000 more tons, or 36 percent more nitrogen oxides polluting the air by 2018 under the “Clear Skies” initiative versus the existing Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act calls for the implementation of a 2 million-ton cap on the amount of sulfur dioxide released in air pollution by 2012. The “Clear Skies” initiative would raise that cap to 4.5 million tons by 2010 and 3 million tons by 2018, resulting in 50 percent more sulfur dioxide polluting the air by 2018. The Hubbard Brook Research Foundation found there would actually need to be a further 80 percent reduction over the Clear Air Act regulations on sulfur dioxide emission for environmental recovery to be seen by 2050.

Mercury is a neurological toxin that threatens the health of developing fetuses and has been linked to impaired memory, attention, language, visual and motor coordination in children and reduced fertility, blood pressure regulation and heart problems in adults. The Clean Air Act implements a 5-ton-per-year cap on mercury emissions by 2008. Bush’s initiative would implement a 26-ton cap per year by 2010 and a 15-ton cap per year by 2018. This would cause 200 percent more mercury to pollute the air by 2018.

One pollutant Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative addresses that the Clean Air Act did not is carbon dioxide, but even these regulations are laughable. It would lower carbon dioxide emissions by 18 percent over the next 10 years. This would not actually decrease the amount of pollution in the air; it would simply slow the rate at which carbon dioxide emissions are increasing. This isn’t surprising logic from a president still questioning if global warming exists.

The Clean Air Act applied to factories and power plants built in 1970 or later, but exempted earlier structures from the regulations. During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency required older plants to update their structures to conform to Clean Air Act regulations when they applied for permits to extend the operational lifetimes of their plants. Bush wants to amend a “New Source Review” to his “Clear Skies” initiative, which would do away with the updated requirements anytime a pre-1970 plant remodels.

Power plants remain the largest uncontrolled source of air pollution. The Clean Air Act orders each power plant to install the maximum achievable control technology for toxic air pollutants by the end of 2007, and then further limit any unacceptable health risks that remain. Power companies are lobbying heavily for nominal cuts in air pollutants emitted by power plants of less than 50 percent, while today’s clean-up technology already achieves reductions of up to 90 percent. By court order, the EPA must propose its utility maximum achievable control technology rule by this December and finalize the rule by December 2004.

We’ll see if Bush persuades Congress and the EPA to protect at-risk populations or polluters. I hope they choose a healthier environment for all, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting.

R.R.S. Stewart’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]