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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: A Good, Clean Fight

Clean air costs too much? Tell it to the kids who can't play outside.

by Carl Pope

"The effects of ozone are not that serious. I hate to say that. But what we are talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent. That's not really a health effect."

That salvo from Richard Klimisch, a vice president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, opened the first major battle over the protection of America's families in the 105th Congress. His remarkable assertion was part of a multimillion-dollar campaign by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from updating America's clean air standards to reflect the latest scientific knowledge.

Over the past four years, more than 300 studies have documented the effects of ozone and "particulates," the microscopic soot emitted by cars, wood stoves, and smokestacks. Every year, 33 million children are regularly exposed to harmful levels of ozone, which even in concentrations well below legal limits can make it impossible for them to run and play ("not really a health effect," according to Klimisch). Even more serious is particulate air pollution, which, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, causes up to 64,000 premature deaths in the United States each year.

The auto, oil, coal, chemical, and energy industries have expended enormous effort to convince the Clinton administration to dump or water down the new standards. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner has resolutely refused, and published the revised standards on schedule last November.

Now it's up to the new Congress to prove that it has abandoned the 104th's War on the Environment. In the House, the Republican leadership was sobered by the November defeat of 12 anti-environmental incumbents targeted for defeat by the Sierra Club, and by the victory of 70 percent of Club-endorsed candidates. But in the Senate, bolstered by hard-line right-wing senators elected in 1994 and 1996, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) seems poised to fight the same old environmental battles again, positioning his party against children's health and clean air. Even environmental stalwarts like Rhode Island's John Chafee (R) are wavering under the pressure.

The debate in Congress, and in the nation at large, will be closely watched by the Clinton White House. While its initial moves have been forceful, its resolve has been known to weaken in the face of perceived public indifference. And this time the rules of the game have changed. One of the "regulatory reforms" adopted by the last Congress requires congressional approval of major new federal rules like the proposed air standards. This gives industry two chances to kill the measures; if it can't convince the administration to back down from the proposals between now and June, it can try its luck with Congress.

According to internal documents, the NAM has a two-track strategy. To businesses, it grossly overstates the costs of complying with the lifesaving new regulations. (A similar tactic was used during the 1990 clean air debate, when trade associations claimed that it would cost utilities $1,500 a ton to clean up sulfur dioxide. In reality, the price was only about $100 a ton.) It then hits them up for cash: "Large trade associations are being asked to contribute $100,000," say the NAM internal papers. "Medium associations are asked to contribute $50,000. Large corporations (annual sales of $1 billion or more) are asked to contribute $20,000." As of last November, at least 15 companies and associations had ponied up $100,000 each to fight cleaner air.

To the public, industry argues first that the science isn't clear enough, then that the health effects are not serious enough, and finally that it's simply too expensive to fix the problem. To do so it has to ignore the studies showing that deaths and emergency room visits soar when particulate levels rise, and that childhood asthma deaths have more than doubled since 1980. In this case, the cost/benefit analyses so beloved by industry are unequivocal; they show the price of the regulations as $8.5 billion at most, but returning to society $51 billion in benefits.

The NAM tells its members not to worry; as soon as they pay their dues, it will prepare a press kit "that explains complex air pollution issues in a concise, non-technical manner." Presumably these materials will explain how robbing a child of 30 percent of his or her lung function is not a health effect. It will be interesting to see what happens when the manufacturers‹and their paid spokespeople in Congress‹try to make that argument to the nation's parents.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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