Washington — The debate over the future of the Clean Air Act has been forecast as a classic battle between environmentalists and industry. But based on early maneuverings and position-taking, changes in the nation's most sweeping environmental protection legislation seem more likely to involve fine-tuning and compromise.
Even the most ardent supporters of the act, which is up for renewal in Congress this year, acknowledge that certain regulations need to be simplified and deadlines pushed back.
"We are the first to believe that the complexity of the program should be reduced," says David Hawkins, attorney with the National Resources Defense Council. Mr. Hawkins headed the clean air branch of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Carter administration.
A trio of former EPA administrators --William Ruckelshaus, Russell Train, and Douglas Costle -- agreed in recent congressional testimony that clean air red tape needs to be unsnarled, as did an organization of state pollution control administrators.
The new Republican head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee --Robert T. Stafford of Vermont -- is a wellregarded environmentalist who would like to settle the matter in gentlemanly fashion before the end of the year. He is likely to provide a more moderating influence to those in the Reagan administration pushing for wholesale deregulation.
Still, there are clear differences of opinion on how best to reach the generally agreed upon goal of cleaner air more quickly and efficiently. The administration's plan won't be known until later this summer, after a new EPA administrator has been confirmed. But in recent congressional testimony, acting EPA chief Walter Barber gave some clues to White House thinking.
Campaigning last year, President Reagan said air pollution "has been substantially controlled." Mr. Barber offered amore thoughtful and less rosy description of the nation's air quality.
"Smog is pervasive and adversely affects the residents of most of our major urban areas," he told a Senate committee. "The reduction in emissions from automobiles has done little more than keep pace with growth in automobile travel. . . . The inventory of potentially hazardous organic and inorganic chemical emissions has remained substantially unchanged."
In general, the administration wants to allow states greater flexibility in considering economic factors and local problems in working for improved air quality. It also would like to see potential adverse health effects clearly delineated in setting clean air goals.
The points of argument here are likely to focus on two phrases: "cost effectiveness" and "margin of safety."
Affected industries (and the White House) tend to favor only those standards for which the economic benefits are not outweighed by costs of cleaning up the atmosphere. The National Commission on Air Quality said recently that the Clean Air Act has not significantly inhibited economic growth, and in fact may have resulted in a net economic gain.
In any case, environmentalists argue, a price tag should not be placed on public health, especially when certain groups (children, the elderly, and those with particular health problems) may be more adversely affected by unclean air than the general public.
"The concept of margin of safety against suspected, but not completely certain, dangers should be retained," the National Clean Air Coalition insists.
The immediate debate is focusing on deadlines for metropolitan areas and the auto industry to comply with clean air standards. The National Clean Air Coalition is critical of administration proposals to relax such standards, even though the National Commission on Air Quality favors the replacement of federal deadlines with state- set dates.