At long last, Congress has resolved most issues in a long-stalled debate: what to do about acid rain. President Bush's 1989 jump-start surprised many who opposed Clean Air Act revisions, but then the legislative process bogged down.
The Midwest, whose utilities and plants pump out most of the sulphur and toxic pollutants floating East, wanted to protect an economy hit hard by oil shocks, foreign competition and the Sunbelt's lure. The East, whose miners dig much of the coal used in Midwest power plants, wanted to protect jobs. The West, whose ores and smelters helped create the pollution wafting to the East, did not want to help pay for the cleanup.
In the meantime, evidence mounted that smokestack sulphur was poisoning lakes and streams all over. And new evidence showed that nitrogen oxide from cars and trucks is a major pollutant hurting bays and estuaries such as the Chesapeake. Finally, auto exhaust has long been known as the critical component of urban smog.
It took hard bargaining, but House-Senate conferees have worked out a deal. It requires that smog-causing pollution be cut by 15 percent within six years and 3 percent each year after that. Cities are to have five to 15 years (20 for Los Angeles) to meet the new standards. Auto tailpipe emissions are to fall 30 to 60 percent by 1998.
Electric utilities will have to cut annual sulphur emissions by 10 million tons in 10 years, with emissions capped after that. And for the first time, nitrogen oxides also are to be cut. A provision sought by Midwesterners lets utilities trade "pollution credits" to raise cash for expansions, cleanups and new technology. And steelmakers, in what is the quintessential smokestack industry, are required to seal off their coke ovens' cancer-causing fumes. Still other provisions deal with toxic gases.
There can be no ifs, ands or buts to cleaning up the environment. Utilities are unhappy over the costs and inefficiencies of stack-gas scrubbers, but they had their chance to buy the clean-coal technologies perfected in the 1980s. Such equipment, especially combined-cycle coal-gas plants, can burn even the dirty coal of the East cleanly. The auto industry won delays, but it, too, will have to meet new standards.
The worst complainers may talk about the estimated $11 billion-a-year initial cost and a bigger bill later on, but they've had plenty of notice. Now it is time to get on with the cleanup. The air everyone breathes has been foul for long enough. Clearing it will time, money and commitment from all sectors of society. Let's get going.