The Clean Air Act is still on the congressional table, despite being overshadowed by pressing events in the Middle East and a noisy debate over the budget. Encouragingly, House and Senate conferees have found ways to agree on issues that had appeared headed for deadlock. Debate on urban smog, involving provisions covering the largest portion of the bill, is proceeding rapidly:
* Attainment: the Senate's bill set four classes of ozone severity for urban and rural areas, with more cleanup time given to the areas of worst pollution. House provisions established five classes, starting with "marginal." Deadlines and minimum requirements are more gradual than under the Senate bill, but stricter. The House provisions won out.
* Non-attainment boundaries: Both chambers had similar provisions, but the House version, accepted by Senate conferees, expands areas of severe ozone and carbon monoxide pollution to include entire metropolitan statistical areas.
* Polluters subject to control: The House provisions, accepted by the conferees, drop the definition of a major source from 100 tons a year of volatile organic compounds in serious ozone areas to 50 tons, or 25 tons in severe areas and 10 in extreme areas. This allows states to impose controls on smaller sources such as dry cleaners.
* Yearly reductions: The Senate bill would force the 40 most polluted areas to reduce volatile organic compound emissions 4 percent a year for six years and 3 percent a year after that, counting motor vehicle emissions. But senators accepted the House standard, which requires all except marginal ozone areas to achieve 15-percent reductions of volatile compound emissions in six years, auto emissions excluded, and 3-percent-a-year reductions after that. EPA waivers of requirements would be sharply limited.
* Retreats on federal oversight of implementation plans were defeated. The Environmental Protection Agency will be required to issue a federal plan two years after a state fails to submit an adequate state plan to attain air quality standards. Where the Senate bill would allow the EPA to impose one element of a plan, the House provisions that won acceptance require a complete federal plan for attainment.
Still unresolved is unemployment and retraining benefits for workers displaced because of these requirements. The House voted $250 million in benefits, but the Senate bill did not address the issue. Other issues remain before the bill goes to the White House, but it's clear many in Congress want to finish before Election Day. That's good; the public wants a Clear Air Act, too.