Rethinking the Clean Air Act: economic growth may take priority

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm at signals that the country might retreat in its battle against air pollution. Business interests want more flexibility to allow for more industry and more jobs.

This week Congress began the task of pulling together both sides to overhaul the Clean Air Act, the biggest regulatory effort ever attempted by the United States. The controversial, 11-year-old act is due for rewritting this year.

"The Clean Air Act has worked well," said Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, chairman of the National Commission on Air Quality. The commission released its 2 1/2 year study of the antipollution law on March 2.

In presenting the study, Senator Hart told a joint House and Senate committee that "air quality today would be much worse than 10 years ago" without the Clear Air Act. "Instead, it is better."

The 13-member commission produced 109 proposals for changes, including tightening up on some controls and relaxing others. The recommendations are expected to form the basis for the congressional debate on revising the act.

Among the most controversial proposals, the commission called for dropping the 1987 deadlines that have been set for all American cities to bring their air up to safe standards. The commission, which included both lawmakers and representatives from special-interest groups, found eight areas that cannot meet the deadline.

According to the commission, Houston; Los Angeles and Ventura, Calif.; Denver; New York City; Philadelphia; San Diego; and Allentown, Pa., will fail to scrub their air clean enough to meet national standards.

The commission called for periodic reviews in those areas to achieve the standards, instead of setting an absolute deadline.

That move would be a "major dismantling" of the law, protested David Hawkins, spokesman for the National Clean air Coalition.

"If we get rid of the deadline, then we will turn if [enforcement] into a technical argument between engineers," he said.

The Clean Air Coalition also opposes a plan to drop pollution limits for areas where the air now is considered to be clean. Only park and wilderness areas would keep tight rules.

The clean Air Coalition applauded the Commission's proposal for launching a campaign to reduce the sulfur dioxide fumes caused by Eastern US industries. Sulfur dioxide is believed to be a major cause of "acid rain," which has killed fish in hundreds of fresh water lakes.

In its report, the commission found that the revised law should continue to set air-quality standards to protect health regardless of the cost of meeting those standards. That policy, which is included in the current statute, has been challenged by some businessmen as unreasonable.

James R. Mahoney, cofounder of Environmental Research & Technology, a Massachusetts firm that advises industry on the Clean Air Act, called the study a "constructive effort" to balance the public's concern about good air quality and the related concern about econom ic development and new jobs.

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