Cleaning the Air

CLEANER air won't come cheap. The legislation now heading toward the president's desk will cost industry in the range of $25 billion a year, and much of that cost will be passed along to consumers in higher utility rates and more expensive cars. Still, the bill went through, after some of the toughest bargaining Congress has seen in years. Huge economic interests such as the chemical, auto, and soft-coal industries had vigorous champions among the lawmakers. But after 13 years of failed attempts to strengthen the nation's clean-air law, a consensus exists to check further environmental degradation. Even the industries most affected by the new law have signed on.

While some top presidential aides have been less than ardent backers of tough anti-pollution measures, the Bush administration pushed for completion of the legislation and helped forge the needed compromises. The environmental presidency - though wilting during recent months - may still have some life in it.

This year's clean-air act will put a lid on the major sources of befouled atmosphere. It will phase out the production of ozone-depleting chemicals through the '90s and totally ban them early in the next century. Tailpipe emissions from cars will be sharply reduced beginning with 1994 models; oil companies will be required to develop cleaner burning fuels. Strict rules will be implemented for clearing away the smog that still darkens many US cities. Coal-burning utilities will have to abide by caps on the amounts of acid-rain producing chemicals that can be released from their stacks. And the numbers of airborne toxins monitored and controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency will be greatly increased.

The EPA, of course, is the linchpin. Federal environmental regulators, working closely with state officials, will have the job of translating well-intentioned legislation into working law. Requests for added funding for the EPA to hire more technical experts and provide grants to local agencies should be granted.

The task is complex, but there's reason to hope the EPA, with leadership from director William Reilly, is ready for it.

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