Landmark U.S. act credited with improving air quality

Report notes progress of past 3 decades but urges greater effort

January 30, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Clean Air Act has improved air quality significantly in the United States over the past three decades, but the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday that far more effort is needed to cut air pollution in the future.

In a long-awaited report requested by Congress more than two years ago, the academy's panel of scientists say the landmark legislation has been crucial in reducing such pollutants as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and lead - particularly in the face of a growing population and increasing energy consumption.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's future efforts must pay greater attention to pollution transported across states, the report said. It recommended that future regulations provide better protections to fragile ecosystems and vulnerable populations such as minorities, who are often overlooked.

"We should feel good that we've made progress, that the implementation of the Clean Air Act has more or less worked and we have cleaner air," said committee chairman William L. Chameides, an Earth and atmospheric studies professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "But we could make it better, we need to make it better, because we have some really significant and difficult problems facing us in the future."

The report lays out a series of short- and long-term recommendations on subjects that range from regulating emissions of cranes and bulldozers to improving the way scientists track how reductions in pollution affect human health.

"We hope this will be a blueprint for continuing progress on clean air in the face of some very daunting challenges that have emerged in the last 10 years," said Daniel S. Greenbaum, the committee's vice chairman and president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston. "For example, based on new science, the new standards on particulates and ozone pollution will be difficult for many areas of the country to meet without changes."

While the scientific panel's report avoids taking on specific proposals from either the Bush administration or Congress, it appears to reject some of the president's environmental policies and endorse others.

"I think that a lot of the report amounts to a very sharp critique of the Bush administration's approach to pollution control," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Washington-based Clean Air Trust.

For example, O'Donnell said, the report calls for the EPA's current air pollution system to remain in place with "evolutionary" changes rather than a "major overhaul." But the administration has proposed "a very radical overhaul of the system in its Clear Skies plan," O'Donnell said, "seeking to scrap a number of existing pollution control programs in exchange for a whole new system."

The report generally supported another Bush approach - an emissions cap-and-trade system that allows companies to buy and sell pollution allowances - but it sought more safeguards than the EPA has proposed.

Robert Brenner, deputy assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said the agency believes that much of the report is "very consistent with directions we're headed in," and provides "suggestions of areas where we should begin to place additional emphasis."

Among the most significant changes it proposes is one that would have the EPA and state governments focus air quality strategies on multiple pollutants simultaneously, instead of concentrating on each different hazard. Toxic pollutants that aren't a high priority, such as benzene, also could be incorporated into such strategies, the report said.

At the same time, the report calls for the EPA to pay more attention to results and less attention to bureaucratic paperwork and details.

Brenner conceded that the EPA faces a difficult task as it tries to implement some of the report's recommendations. "There should be a way to place more emphasis on adopting measures that will provide progress toward air quality goals and accountability for how that progress is made, and whether that progress is being made," he said.

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