The Politics of Clean Air

Karen Schaefer- Since January, environmentalists have been shaking their fists at George W. Bush's new stance on environmental policy. In his first 100 days in office, Bush has directed new EPA Administrator Christie Todd-Whitman to hang back from signing the international Kyoto Accords designed to reduce global warming. Even critics of the new administration like Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust in Washington admit that Whitman is in a tough position.

Frank O'Donnell- I think it's very possible she may be sorry she took the job. Clearly it's a very difficult job from her perspective, because, on the one hand, there is a great need to proceed with the clean up of air pollution, but at the other hand, that would come at a cost of the some of the industries that are very strong backers of the President -- the oil industry, the coal industry, the electric power industry.

KS- O'Donnell and other environmentalists believe those industries will be the big winners in the new administration's national energy policy. That policy is currently being developed by a committee headed by Vice President Dick Chaney. He's being assisted by federal agencies like the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Transportation and to some extent, the EPA. But O'Donnell says neither the group's membership nor its agenda are entirely clear.

FO- As we understand it, the workings of this energy policy group are entirely secret. We believe they are probably getting most of their information from the businesses, from the oil companies, from the coal companies, from the nuclear industry for that matter. So there's great concern that what they're going to do will include an attack on the Clean Air Act.

KS- The Clean Air Act was last reviewed in 1990 and is overdue for an update, although Washington insiders don't expect that to happen this year. One of those insiders is Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich, who heads the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air. Since January he's been holding hearings on a wide range of environmental issues. Voinovich says it's time to move forward on environmental clean-up, which he links to energy and the economy.

George Voinovich- Part of the reason why our economy is in such terrible shape today is because of our high energy costs. There's been a great deal of controversy and rock-throwing back and forth from groups and I think that the public wants to see us all get together and see if we can't work together to come up with something that will continue to improve the environment, but also deal with the energy crisis that we have in this country.

KS- One of Voinovich's proposals is to convert some of Ohio's new natural gas-burning electric plants back to coal. But air pollution from coal-fired utilities in Ohio and other Midwestern states is at the heart of new EPA regulations designed to reduce smog emissions. Rebecca Stanfield is the Ohio clean air advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. She charges that Republican proposals intended to balance economic and environmental issues will actually worsen pollution.

Rebecca Stanfield- The statistics are shocking, asthma is on the increase, more and more people are vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. 30,000 people a year die prematurely because of air pollution. So I think the American people will not sit still for rollbacks of their environmental laws.

KS- Clean air advocates agree it's unlikely Republicans will attack the Clean Air Act head-on. They say erosions in clean air laws will most likely come in the form of riders attached to appropriations bills that don't require Congressional approval. Certainly the electric utility industry has been pushing hard for less stringent federal regulation, even challenging federal laws in court. But environmentalists say the biggest battle may come over the new proposed standards for ambient air. Those call for reductions of the small particle emissions that generate smog. The EPA says two of the primary sources for those emissions are dirty power plants and diesel engines. Two new studies by the Health Effects Institute in Washington confirm the link between short and long-term exposure to particulates and the rise in illnesses and deaths relating to air pollution. But Senator Voinovich says when it comes to new ambient air and health standards, the jury is still out.

GV- They promoted new particulate standards from, I think, 10 particles down to 2.5, but the research has not been completed. We spent, I think, several hundred-thousand dollars doing the research on monitors. And they're still not sure just what that standard is going to be.

KS- Voinovich believes the Clean Air Act will also come up for review in 2002. In the meantime, environmentalists are hoping Democratic members of his Clean Air Subcommittee such as Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton will help balance Republican proposals. And they're counting on the American public to care more about clean air than cheap energy. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.

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