The fight for clean air isn’t over yet

by Jose

In the last 45 years, great progress has been made in cleaning the air we breathe. However, after innumerable pieces of legislation and greater awareness of pollution’s unhealthy effects, the goal of clean air remains a moving target, an elusive goal. The more we know about the chronic effects of pollutants, the ecological effects of air pollution, the sick building syndrome and secondary tobacco smoke, the more concerned we are about the purity of our air.
America’s preoccupation with clean air is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in 1955 that the first federal legislation dealing exclusively with air pollution was passed. The law provided for research, data collection and technical assistance to the states and local governments. By today’s standards, it was an unsophisticated attempt to do something about air pollution at a time when not much was known about its harmful effects.
Eight years later, in 1963, the Clean Air Act appropriated $95 million for the fiscal years 1964-1967 and granted authority to federal enforcement agents to deal with interstate air pollution problems. The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Air in 1965 established national controls of emissions from new motor vehicles.
The Air Quality Act was passed in 1967, which established air quality control regions with state-set standards of air quality based on federally established criteria. Three years later, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 categorized noise as a pollutant. This act required states to develop plans to bring their air quality to the national standards and required stringent national emission standards for new automobiles.
The Clean Air Act was amended again in 1977. It included specific requirements for preventing the deterioration of air quality in locations where the air was already cleaner than required by the national air quality standards. Some 100 chemicals were regulated in 1988, and 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in counties that exceeded the levels promulgated in the revised standards. Major amendments in 1990 halved the limits for gases associated with vehicle exhaustion and coal-burning power plants.
In the fight for cleaner air, the federal government has played a more important role than state and local governments. The federal government initially implemented a regulatory system of high deference to local government and industry (in the ’50s and ’60s) and transformed it to one of stringent national air quality goals and requirements (in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s). What once was a modest national presence, largely confined to research, limited funding assistance to states and mediation of multi-state conflicts, has become a model of command and control, which concentrates considerable authority in the hands of the federal government. What was once indifference to the types of pollution control technologies adopted and the speed with which they were put into use has become an ambitious plan for prodding technological innovation and accelerating its widespread utilization.
Whatever progress has been made, however, has been partial. Industries have opposed most of the proposed solutions, because they increase the price of doing their business or the price of their products. In other cases, industries have agreed with the goals, but disagreed with the solutions, like when they suggested that cleaning the environment should be done by trading “pollution rights” freely bought and sold in the marketplace among the interested parties. In other cases, industries have threatened to close their old plants and open new plants elsewhere (maybe even outside the United States).
The state and local governments, which depend on these industries for their tax base and for employment opportunities, started to become more accommodating and less radical, sometimes weakening the intent, and even the letter of the law.
Our track record with air pollution has been mixed. On the favorable side, the emissions of a large number of dangerous air pollutants have dropped since 1970, and many new production control technologies have been developed, such as the catalytic converter device now standardized in American cars. Also, many industries with long–standing records of environmental abuse have been forced to introduce new pollution control devices, which have been translated into a significant air quality gain in some of the most polluted cities of the country.
On the other hand, despite its bold preamble and lofty environmental goals, national clean air legislation has demonstrated a number of limitations. Many standards have neither been met nor, in some cases, approached, and the implementation has proven extremely difficult. The clean air program has also tended to operate with minimal consideration for overall environmental health ramifications. It has, at times, only pushed pollutant problems into another medium such as land or water with less stringent regulation. Many air pollution control technologies result in residues of sludges, which must be disposed of on land and are often quite hazardous in this form.
It is clear that much still needs to be done to fulfill our goal of breathing clean air. Our past progress in this area should not blind us to the long way still ahead of us. The battle for clean air is not over yet.
Jose G. Gomez is a doctoral candidate in educational policy and administration.