Don't cloud the Clean Air Act

The fact that relatively clear skies can now be found in many parts of the United States -- where soot and other industrial pollutants once blackened the atmosphere --should be ample justification for Congress to move cautiously in revising the Clean Air Act as it comes up for extension this year. As Sen. Gary Hart, chairman of the National Commission on Air quality, says: "The Clean Air Act has worked well."

The commission, after a two-year study of the act (which was passed under a Republican administration back in 1970 and revised under a Democratic one in 1977), would eliminate the mandatory 1987 deadlines for bringing US cities up to safe standards and loosen restrictions in areas that already have clean air. At the same time several business groups, flexing their political muscle after last year's presidential election, are seeking ever more substantial diminution of the act.

There can be little disagreement with the need to revise the legislation so that clean air regulations do not become so stringent as to virtually drive firms out of business, as industry spokesman allege is occasionally the case. The Anaconda Copper company, for example, cited costly pollution-abatement requirements as one fact forcing the company to close down its smelter at Anaconda, Mont. The smelter was the town's primary employer. The intention of the act was surely to make industries more responsive to health and environmental considerations, not to slam their gates shut.

There is also a good case for rethinking the rigid 1987 deadline for US cities. Some communities, such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Houston, will most likely not be able to meet the national standards no matter how vigorously they move towards implementation of them in the next several years. But to what extent should Congress pull back from setting a national deadline? Lawmakers might well want to ensure that local communities honestly seeking to meet the act's requirements but unable to do so because of unique problems are given special help -- such as a time extension, where appropriate.

Congress might also want to examine the request of the auto industry that car and truck emission standards be revised to help the industry raise the billions of dollars that will be needed for retooling to new, smaller cars in the next several years, monies that will otherwise in part have to go to meet air standards. Any easing of auto emission standards, however, should not become the opening wedge of retreat from the US commitment to eventually controlling toxic emissions. Indeed, it is in great part the federal mandating of emission (and mileage and safety) standards that is spurring Detroit into producing vehicles which are truly competitive with their overseas counterparts.

Similarly, Congress should be particularly wary in weakening those provisions of the act that protect areas now having clean air. Should not the essential goal -- since the nation has given a green light to "conservatism" politically -- be to "conserve" the gains in clean air already won? To loosen standards where the victory has been achieved would be a disservice to the public, including the firms that have already introduced antipollution devices. Moreover, it must not be overlooked that pollution threats will likely increase in the next decade, as industries turn to coal as a key energy source.

Enactment of the Clean Air Act was a notable environmental achievement. Congress has an obligation to make the act workable while fostering a climate of new jobs and renewed industrial development. But revision should not come at the cost of undermining the very purpose of the legislation -- protection of the air shar ed by all Americans.

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