Antipollution Priorities

Clean air is a policy goal that no one can fault. But the means of attaining it can draw sharp criticism. Businesses pinched by efforts to reduce pollution complain. Politicians intent on deregulation howl. And demurs also come from more objective analysts who have problems with the way government devises and tries to implement air-quality standards.

All three types of criticism are now flowing toward the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently proposed a significant shift in such standards. The changes would come in two areas - particulate pollution, such as soot from burning coal, and ozone, a main ingredient of smog.

In both areas the EPA proposes much greater stringency. If adopted, the new pollution limits would place hundreds of urban counties out of compliance with federal law and demand costly fixes in factories, power plants, and vehicles. The controversy generated by the rule changes has so far swirled roughly into two clouds: whether the benefits justify the costs, and whether regional disputes over pollution will be heightened by this EPA move.

The agency cites scientific evidence that reduced health costs will more than offset the $8 billion a year or more needed to tool up for the new standards. The strength of that evidence, however, is more widely acknowledged for particulates than for ozone. The latter pollutant is harder to trace, and the means of controlling it are potentially much more expensive, entailing, for instance, further changes in automotive technology.

Such technological advances are desirable, but political feasibility is at issue too. If the administration and the EPA want to move forward with clean-air revisions in the near future, they would do well to focus on particulates and give ground on ozone. The Congress will be applying its own, newly enacted cost-benefit standards to these environmental regulations, and it's doubtful the ozone rules would - or should - pass as proposed.

Regarding the regional conflict, that boils down to a desire on the part of Northeast states to make polluters in the Midwest shoulder more of the cost of cleaning up eastward-drifting air. Some in the Northeast see the new standards as a lever to force clean-up upwind. The most reasonable approach, however, is to view the whole area east of the Rockies as one "airshed" that should work as a unit to cut pollution. The basic tools for doing this are pollution credits, which designate a "right" to emit a pollutant and which can be bought and sold by businesses.

Thus a coal-burning plant in Ohio, say, may buy the unused credits of a factory in Massachusetts. The amount of air cleansing, overall, is the same no matter who uses the credits. States throughout the eastern US have already formed an association to deal with ozone problems. Broadened geographical efforts should reduce city by city, county by county bickering.

Clean air remains a priority. The new standards, even if not implemented in total, should help the US remain a leader in this crucial realm.

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