Polluting the Clean Air Act

May 20, 1992

Pity the "environmental president." His White House has just argued itself into a position it knows is indefensible. Now the question is how to get back to a reasonable stance without looking like a complete crowd of obfuscators and back-waddlers.

In 1988, Candidate George Bush, fresh from his visit to putrid Boston Harbor, pledged to clean up the environment and undercut Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' chances of overtaking him in the presidential race. Among other things, Mr. Bush promised to remove the congressional logjam on Clean Air Act revisions. President Bush did not get everything he wanted, but his strong pronouncements did push the Congress' fractious committees off the starting grid, and the act was duly rewritten.

Now, with presidential year 1992 mightily affected by an economy still sour, Mr. Bush apparently has decided he can do without the law he did so much to rewrite. The White House reportedly has overruled Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly on notifying the public of industrial plant changes that increase pollution.

Congress wrote into the law limitations on the pollution a plant can emit, requiring permits that specify what comes out of the exhaust stacks. Industry spokesmen fought that provision, but lost. But now, through intermediaries, Mr. Bush has let it be known he wants new language eliminating the requirement. Mr. Reilly, supported by his general counsel, E. Donald Elliott, thinks that won't pass muster in the courts. So does the U.S. comptroller general, but the White House still wants EPA regulations ignoring the permit requirement.

Is this the president who wants to go to Rio, touting American leadership on the environment? Is this what the "environmental president" would present -- complete disregard for the law when his industry friends find it inconvenient? Even in a shaky economy, business needs cannot supersede all concern for environmental protection.

There should be no need for a court test of the proposition that people have the right to know about new plant emissions that may significantly affect their health and their environment. That's what the Clean Air Act was written to certify. The White House should take its informally announced plans back to the drawing board, with the proviso that even if powerful industry friends don't like it end-arounds on the law will not be allowed.

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