WHEN it was launched in 1970, the Clean Air Act was supposed to herald a new age of environmental progress. But that new age has been painfully slow in coming. Though significant progress has been made, clean-air goals have too often been obscured by special-interests lobbying and administrative laxity. George Bush has now made his bid to blow the politics aside and get on with cleaning up the air. His targets are well chosen: the chemical pollutants that cause acid rain, smog-producing automobile emissions, a range of industrial emissions known to pose serious health hazards. All were targeted in the earlier legislation, but a combination of over-optimistic projections, constantly loosening clean-up deadlines, and poor state-federal cooperation caused governmental efforts to fall short.
Mr. Bush's initiative includes some much-needed specifics: a halving of sulphur-dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants by the turn of the century. Equally important, in William K. Reilly the President has an Environmental Protection Agency chief who appears ready to strengthen the government's enforcement record.
Will it be enough? Many environmental groups, while praising the Bush proposal plan as a start and noting its break from the Reagan era, have doubts about the plan's reliance on industry to choose the methods of cutting back on certain pollutants. When it comes to smog reduction, some critics point out that tighter pollution-control deadlines for carmakers are the most promising option, rather than reliance on new fuels.
As before, industrial concerns - oil, coal, chemicals - are going to mass their forces against stronger pollution standards. Some in Congress will want to toughen the Bush proposals; many, reflecting business interests back home, will try to weaken them.
The environment is unmistakably back on the agenda, and not just in the United States. The European Community is waging its own campaign for cleaner air. As President Bush seems to understand, few policy goals are more important than proving that pollution doesn't have to be tolerated.