A controversial Clinton administration proposal to tighten air quality standards prompted a warning Tuesday that it could lead to an unraveling of the nation’s key air pollution law.
Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., a moderate who has had wide support among environmentalists, said he is deeply concerned about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal and urged that key parts of it be postponed.
“With the tighter standards, you’re going to find a revolt against the Clean Air Act,” Chafee told reporters on the eve of hearings on the proposal by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he chairs.
The EPA plan to impose more stringent standards on smog-causing ozone and soot, largely from combustion, has attracted strong opposition from the business community, which claims the change will cost tens of billions of dollars and provide minimal health improvements.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who is scheduled to appear before Chafee’s committee today, reiterated her determination to tighten the air pollution standards, saying that 130 million Americans would benefit, including 33 million children.
“The best available science calls for action,” she insisted in a meeting with reporters at EPA headquarters. Rejecting criticism from a business coalition that the EPA was relying on incomplete and “junk” science, Browner said the agency based its proposal on more than 240 peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Comments are still being heard, but Browner said she is confident the agency will produce a final regulation on the new standards by summer. It would be years before the new standards, which would establish the minimum pollution levels states and communities must strive to achieve, would actually be implemented.
But the proposal has sparked a firestorm.
Chafee, one of the leaders of the long, contentious fight for tougher clean air legislation in 1990, urged the EPA to back off from its proposal and take a more modest approach.
He said if the standards go into effect, pressure would grow in Congress to reopen the 1990 Clean Air Act, which could allow opponents to press for numerous changes in the law that is the linchpin to government efforts to improve air quality.
“You overload the horse … and you get the whole program in jeopardy,” Chafee said. “I want to preserve the Clean Air Act and I don’t want to see it cut back and attacked because we’ve overloaded the circuits.”
Last year House Republicans talked about overhauling the law, but those efforts gained little widespread support. Even so, grumbling about an EPA automobile inspection program caused enough political turmoil that the Congress ordered the program stopped.
The EPA’s new soot and ozone standards could prompt a similar revolt, Chafee suggested.
The EPA wants to require states and local communities to develop pollution controls so that ozone levels will not exceed 0.08 parts per billion in any eight-hour period, instead of the current 0.12 parts per billion during any one-hour period. The agency also for the first time would begin to regulate microscopic particles, or soot, that comes largely from combustion down to 2.5 microns in diameter, less than 1/28th the width of a human hair.
Chafee suggested splitting the ozone and particulate proposals - something Browner has rejected.
As a compromise, Chafee suggested postponing specific pollution levels for fine particles until studies on health impact can be completed over the next five years, although a general intention to regulate such particles could be issued. As for a new ozone standard, Chafee said “the benefits … are very modest” and the EPA’s proposal should be largely scrapped.
Browner gave no indication Tuesday that the agency will back away from the proposal. She insisted that the ozone and soot standards must be linked and said she is obligated under the Clean Air Act to review the adequacy of the standards.
“The science is clear and compelling,” said Browner. She said large segments of the population - children, the elderly and people suffering from respiratory problems such as asthma - are not protected under the current standards.