Protecting Public Health

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Hotline, Summer 1997

This testimony was presented by Marie Kocoshis, President of GASP, at a public hearing on the proposed National Ambient Air Quality Standards held by Senator Rick Santorum on May 30, 1997. This statement had the support of the North Area Environmental Council, Pennsylvania Citizen Action, The League of Women Voters Greater Pittsburgh, Clean Water Action, PennPIRG, Citizen Power, Inc., and Conservation Consultants, Inc.

More than twenty-five years ago Congress enacted the Clean Air Act. Along with the National Environmental Policy Act, it was the forerunner of and model for modern environmental protection legislation in the United States. Upon its adoption and continuing to the present time, the Clean Air Act remains distinctive among all those statutes: in its provision for the establishment of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, it requires that the protection of public health be the sole consideration in the adoption of the so-called primary standards and that economics should play no role. Beyond that, those standards must be set at levels which provide the public with an adequate margin of safety. This margin of safety is designed to protect against inadequacies in the techniques and information for identifying health hazards. Such inadequacies may understate risks caused or contributed to by air pollution.

Why is the Clean Air Act distinctive in its single-minded focus on protection of the public health regardless of economic costs? Unlike other pollution, air pollution is the one type of environmental contamination that affects everyone all the time: it threatens old and young, healthy and infirm, rich and poor, those living in the East, the Midwest and the West, indoors or outdoors every day, hour, minute, and second they breathe.

The Clean Air Act has been amended significantly twice since it was enacted in 1977 and 1990. These changes have strengthened the ability of the Act to protect the public health from old and newly identified hazards. Never once has Congress abandoned its 1970 commitment to protect the public health from those pollutants that are commonly found in the ambient air. And the Acts success in reducing levels of that pollution has been truly remarkable in view of the obstacles that have stood in the way of progress.

Let there be no mistake about it, despite the contentions directed at EPAs proposal of tightened ozone and particulate matter standards which attack the scientific basis for those standards, all the lobbying, all the oversight hearings in Congress at base amount to nothing more or less than challenges to the determination of Congress in 1970 to protect the public health, with a margin of safety, regardless of costs. The challengers to EPA proposals should lay bare their agenda to make the Clean Air Act nothing more than another statute which allows EPA to balance serious risks to the public health away where eliminating those risks may be made to appear too costly.

The true intent of those who claim that good science does not support EPA in its proposals is most glaringly shown by the fact that the volume and quality of the scientific information supporting the EPA proposals far exceeds the supporting scientific evidence behind prior EPA proposals for and revisions to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. And yet never before have the agencys NAAQS proposals encountered such a firestorm of criticism as they are currently enduring. Perhaps we are reaching a point where the public is willing to sacrifice its health because of the alleged economic costs of pollution reduction. If so, the debate should honestly inform the electorate of the trade offs it will be making not deliberately mislead the public into thinking that the issues relevant to the proposed ozone and particulate matter standards are ones of good science versus bad science. Industries opposing the new standards because of the alleged economic effect on them should not hide their real motives behind the inevitable marginal uncertainty of scientific data that has never been deemed sufficient for EPA to abandon its attempts to protect the public health.

And with regard to the purported economic costs of EPAs proposals, todays hearing could truly serve the public debate by investigating why the American Iron and Steel Institutes study which demonstrated that the Pittsburgh region would incur only minimal additional costs in meeting the revised standards was so effectively suppressed.

The fact of the matter is that EPAs proposals for ozone and particulate matter standards at base represent a compromise on a level of protection against health hazards which splits the difference between studies suggesting that a higher standard would be adequate and those suggesting that much lower standards must be set. For example, the national American Lung Association estimates that 65 percent of Americans, over 178 million people, live in counties that would be considered in violation of the lower NAAQS which the ALA proposes for PM 2.5 as compared with the mere 89 million people who are considered at risk under the EPA proposed standard.

Given the compromise nature of EPAs proposals, it is indeed impossible to launch a credible challenge to the agency as being too aggressive in protecting the public health.

Finally, since the alleged costs of the EPAs proposals constitute the real concern in the ongoing debate, the Clean Air Act gives ample opportunity for their consideration in the crafting of the control measures that are needed to attain the standards and even in setting the deadlines for their attainment. EPA is clearly not oblivious to costs and has been engaged in an extensive stakeholder process to identify cost-effective implementation modes for achievement of the new standards. This process centers around the work of the Subcommittee for Ozone, Particulate Matter and Regional Haze Implementation Programs of the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee. Membership on the Subcommittee now exceeds 80 representatives including industry, state, and local governments and environmental groups. GASP is a member of that group and we can attest to the intense and wide ranging efforts that are currently being made by all sides to arrive at an implementation process that has broad-based support and makes sense in public health and economic terms.