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 Ñ
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
"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
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
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
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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