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The Planet

Clean Air Now

The Planet, March 1997, Volume 4, number 2

Environmentalists, Industry Face Off Over EPA Limits On Smog, Soot

by John Byrne Barry

No one would dispute that, on average, the air in the United States is cleaner today than in 1970 when President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, the first step in reversing what had, until then, been a steadily worsening phenomenon. But that landmark law wasn't enough. Air quality standards were strengthened in 1977 with new provisions for auto emissions and industrial pollution, and, after a 10-year fight, the act was reauthorized in 1990, addressing acid rain, urban smog and airborne toxics. Today, however, three in 10 Americans still breathe unhealthy air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 1996 National Air Quality Trends Report.

So when the EPA introduced proposed new standards for soot and smog in November and scheduled January hearings in Chicago, Boston, Salt Lake City and Durham, N.C., the stage was set for another battle between environmentalists and industry.

We all want clean air, of course. But how clean? And how do we balance the dollar costs of stronger air-quality standards against the public health costs of pollution-caused respiratory problems? Those are the $64,000 questions -- or $64 billion, if you believe some of industry's wildly exaggerated estimates -- that the EPA must answer in its final ruling. John Andrews, political chair of the Club's By John Byrne Barry. 1400 ww.the essence of the debate: "We don't think the question is how much does clean air cost," he said. "We think the question is how much does dirty air cost."

The Sierra Club, which backs the new, tougher standards, hit the ground running once the proposal was released: Volunteers and staff developed fact sheets, compiled research, lined up citizens to testify at hearings and organized rallies and press conferences.

This groundwork paid off. Supporters of the EPA proposal dominated the debate in both the hearing rooms and the media. "Of the first 15 speakers at the Chicago hearings," said Illinois Chapter Director Jack Darin, "12 spoke in favor of clean air standards. That's when the media was there. Overall, it was roughly 50-50, but we signed up early." It was an auspicious beginning to 1997. As Molly Diggins, North Carolina Chapter conservation chair, who coordinated the Club's presence in Durham, said, "Who would have guessed that a daytime hearing on modeling for particulates would be the splashiest event of the new year?"

The new rules grew out of a provision in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which required that the EPA recommend new standards for two specific forms of air pollution every five years. It took a suit by the American Lung Association, however, to force the EPA, which missed the five-year deadline, to act.

The new rules for soot, the tiny particles that are by-products of burning fossil fuels, would apply to particles smaller than 10 microns a human hair is 70 microns thick -- which are currently unregulated and more dangerous than larger particles because the nasal passages and upper lungs can't filter them. Allowable levels for smog, created when sunlight interacts with fossil fuel emissions, would be reduced from 120 parts per billion to 80 parts per billion.

A final version of the standards -- which will be revised in light of public comments (and political pressure) -- is due by June 28. Then Congress has 45 days to consider them under their newly passed oversight authority.

"The final product will not be determined by the EPA alone, but with strong influence from the White House," said Kathryn Hohmann, the Club's director of environmental quality. "Industry is using its muscle to try and weaken these standards, so it's critical that we tell President Clinton we support the EPA proposal."

The hearings featured statements from pediatricians, economists, auto industry representatives, environmentalists and elected officials. But it was often the individuals who have experienced first-hand the ill effects of pollution who provided the most compelling testimony.

In Chicago, it was two brothers who suffer from extreme asthma who upstaged the experts. Eight-year-old Kyle Danitz told the EPA panel how he risks going to the hospital if he goes outside on an ozone warning day. "I hate going to the hospital," he said. "They poke tubes in you. I get shots. I can't play outside. I don't understand why people pollute."

Kyle's mother, Maureen, told the panel that her son's treatment cost her family $75,000 in medical costs in the past year, disputing industry claims that tighter standards would be too expensive. She challenged industry to pick up the tab for her bills, but got no takers.

In Salt Lake City, with a sea of blue stickers behind her proclaiming "Clean Air For Our Kids," aerobics instructor Amy Spector testified in support of the new rules with her two children, one of whom suffers from respiratory problems when particulate levels rise during winter inversions. "If we are going to balance costs and benefits," she said, "let us not forget all the costs attributable to breathing polluted air, such as the health care costs, absences from work and school and shortened life spans."

Others who testified included Howard Peterson, a member of the U.S. Olympic ski team and the Olympic Site Selection Committee that chose Salt Lake City for the 2002 winter games, who said that poor air quality during an inversion -- a very real possibility during the Olympics -- could pose a risk to athletes' health.

At the Durham hearing, 28 people spoke in support of the new standards, 11 against. The first 10 speakers were supporters, said Diggins, and that's when the press was there. "The EPA people were stunned," said Deborah Shprentz, senior research specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the speakers at the hearing. "They can't remember the last time environmentalists outnumbered industry nearly 3 to 1."

Several states held their own hearings on the EPA proposals, including Ohio and California. In Ohio, Club volunteers Margaret Koran, David Scott and Marilyn Wall raised a ruckus when the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission held a public hearing without adequately informing the public. The Columbus Dispatch picked up the story, and the ensuing coverage embarrassed the commission into scheduling another hearing. The new rules are being attacked by a well-financed coordinated lobbying effort by some of the nation's largest polluters. Leading the charge is a 500-member industry coalition with the innocuous-sounding name the Air Quality Standards Coalition, organized by the National Association of Manufacturers.

In addition to using the traditional tactics of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign, like hiring doctors and economists to write reports saying tougher standards are unnecessary, industry is also creating front groups to give the appearance of a grassroots movement. The American Petroleum Institute, for example, has hired a public relations firm to run the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a scientific think tank that conveniently excludes scientists whose work proves the need for tougher standards.

Opponents of the EPAproposal have argued that the scientific facts don't merit changes and that the costs of implementing tougher standards would be prohibitive, the lifestyle changes required inconvenient and the health benefits dubious. "They want to take your snowblowers away," stated the Partnership for Environmental Progress, an Illinois industry coalition.

The Club has countered these criticisms with a plethora of scientific evidence and noted that industry has historically exaggerated the potential costs and hardships of environmental standards. For example, industry leaders claimed in the 1980s that reducing sulfur dioxide emissions would cost $1,500 a ton. It has turned out to cost less than $100 a ton.

But the hyperbole has kept on coming. Stephanie Williams of the California Trucking Association offered this apocalyptic vision at the Salt Lake City hearing: "If the EPA were to adopt its proposed new standards, it would cause suffering and possible death to nearly 44 million people. Citizens would be unable to drive to work. Public transportation would be crippled. Children would be unable to attend school. Hospitals would be unable to obtain medical supplies and there would be no way to get food to grocery stores."

"Such exaggerated claims are likely to continue," said Hohmann, "so we have to keep voicing our support for the new standards. The cost in lives lost and risks to our children's health is too high."

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