The Clean Air Bill is in low gear

Daniel Pontious & Zoe Schneider

September 19, 1990|By Daniel Pontious& Zoe Schneider

WHAT'S in a year?

Since the summer of 1989, when Congress began to steer in earnest toward a new clean air policy, its pace has been spurred on by the steady decline in public health and environmental quality. But with only a few days left in this Congress, the conference committee selected to reconcile bills passed by the House and Senate has shifted into low gear.

In more than two months of negotiations, conferees have managed to reach agreement on fewer than 250 pages of a 700-page document for clearing the air.

With the bill inching along in traffic, perhaps it's time for all of us to take a drive into Tomorrowland; into an image of what Maryland and the national atmosphere will look like a year from now if Congress fails to reach the finish line on a new Clean Air Act.

Over the course of the next year, American odometers will log over a trillion miles of driving. Here in Maryland, the number of automobiles on the road will begin its steady climb from just under 3 million to a projected 5 million by the year 2020. Three out of five of us will risk lung damage from ozone pollution, which is as effective as mustard gas in destroying tissue. The toxic benzene emitted from our tailpipes will be responsible for 60 percent of environmentally caused cancers, and each of those gallons of gasoline burned also will emit carbon dioxide, the primary global warming gas. By the end of the year, Americans will shell out between $85 billion and $93 billion in health care costs from exposure to automobile pollutants alone.

Under the current bills being negotiated, however, emissions of toxic benzene would fall dramatically by the middle of the decade. Equally important, from both an energy independence and a public health standpoint, both bills would mandate the use of cleaner alternative fuels in urban buses and fleet vehicles and reach into the passenger car market with cleaner-fueled autos in the mid-1990s. Given international carmakers' steps toward manufacturing less oil-dependent autos and America's glaring dependence on foreign oil, the cleaner cars of the future are economically sensible and environmentally sound.

This year's Clean Air Act is also designed to tackle one of the most unregulated threats to public health: the emission of toxic substances. Based on statistics kept over the last decade, we can expect an average of 2,070 accidental events this year, or about six accidents a day, involving air release of chemicals that are potentially hazardous. In Maryland, more than 17 million pounds of air toxics will be released into the air over the next 12 months, with more than 74 percent of the sources using no pollution control devices.

Under the bills currently being negotiated, sources of 190 of the most dangerous chemicals would be carefully controlled. A chemical safety board, established along the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board, would be given the authority to investigate accidents and make recommendations for prevention of further tragedies.

Finally, our annual exposure to acid rain in the coming year, and to its dry form, sulfites, will add at least $2.7 billion to our national health bill. What would it cost each consumer to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by nearly 50 percent, the amount specified in both bills? Between $1 and $1.50 per month.

Before recessing on Aug. 3, the conference committee proved that the political will -- and the raw material -- exist for passing convincing legislation. Conferees concluded a sound agreement on ozone protection, phasing out chemicals that destroy the Earth's protective layer of ozone and requiring the use of safe alternatives. But the complicated maneuvering and stop-and-go driving that characterized the early stages of negotiation have placed the bill in real jeopardy.

Legislators still face difficult negotiations on several critical measures. The most stringent controls of emissions from tailpipes and industries are needed to effectively cut urban smog and air toxics. And sections that give the green light to dangerous municipal incineration and that weaken existing health standards must be deleted.

We are a nation willing to spend more than $26 billion on soft drinks and television every year -- far more than the annual estimates for implementing a new Clean Air Act. And polls have consistently shown that we are also a nation willing to pay for cleaner air. There is also a growing awareness that the true costs of not acting are the intangibles: declining public health, deteriorating environmental resources, deaths by accident and illness.

If we are serous about clean air, energy independence, and our international competitiveness, this is the year for Congress to pass, and the president to sign, tough new legislation.

Daniel Pontious is executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. Zoe Schneider is an environmental ; lobbyist.

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