Clean Air Act's pollution deadline has arrived -- but will EPA act?

On New Year's Eve many US municipalities will be ringing in a bit more than 1983. At the stroke of midnight, areas whose air quality doesn't meet Clean Air Act standards will be subject to punishment by the federal government.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists 472 counties whose atmosphere is not up to snuff. Critics claim EPA is simply swinging its switch around in the air to goad Congress into passing a lenient Clean Air Act rewrite.

But the issue remains stymied in Congress, as efforts to amend the Clean Air Act collapsed during the post-election session. Underlying the whole mess is the argument between industry and environmentalists over how clean an atmosphere America can afford.

Under the Clean Air Act, local air-quality control regions - usually counties - were required to meet certain standards for airborne particles and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide by the end of 1982.

Any country whose overall atmosphere has too much of even one pollutant is subject to EPA retaliation. The environmental agency, for instance, could prevent construction of factories or other major sources of pollution. It could cut off funds for highway construction and clean air programs.

An EPA document drawn up in November listed 472 counties that need to clean up their act. But the agency is not about to cart off all these regions in a paddy wagon.

Kathleen Bennett, an EPA assistant administrator, says the agency will divide violators into two groups: the sincere ones, and the shirkers. Counties that have a ''high probability'' of soon meeting the standards will be spared the rod. Those are far behind in their cleanup efforts face discipline.

Only about 140 counties are in the second, at-risk category, says William Becker, executive secretary of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators.

In any case, says Mr. Becker, EPA must lumber through a lengthy and complex process before it can slap sanctions on violators. ''We don't expect any real action until summer,'' he says.

Then there's the question of whether the EPA really has to play tough guy at all. EPA chief Anne Gorsuch says simply that her agency is bound to enforce the law - and that the law mandates sanctions.

''When you all start screaming, don't scream at me,'' she told an audience of state environmental officials this fall. ''Scream at Congress, because they're the only ones that can do anything about it.''

Congress doesn't necessarily agree. Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, says the law mandates punishment only for areas that really aren't trying to clean their atmosphere at all.

''The EPA, by imposing sanctions, could (in some cases) actually violate the law,'' says a congressional committee staffer.

Some feel the EPA may simply be bluffing in an attempt to force Congress to refurbish the Clean Air Act - something legislators tried to do all last year. But even with the December deadline staring them in the face, Congress members couldn't balance industry and environmental concerns and pass new clean air legislation.

The Senate environment committee passed a bill generally favorable to environmentalist concerns, but a House panel remained deadlocked over legislation that industry liked better, and a last effort to compromise during the post-election session failed.

Almost everyone involved agrees that the air-quality deadline should be relaxed. But Senator Stafford and many environmentalists want provisions added that would force new standards for hazardous pollutants and acid rain.

The administration, on the other hand, wants eased auto emission standards, and changes in the rules that protect already clean air from new sources of pollution. This point of view is also held by a key House member, Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House committee considering the issue.

When the 98th Congress convenes, the Senate will probably move quickly on its bill. But the House, which remains split over the issue, will likely lag behind.

And the EPA's sanctions won't be forestalled by quick congressional action. Congressional sources say a Clean Air Act rewrite can't be wrapped up before Labor Day at the earliest.

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