After seven months of the most contentious environmental debate in years, President Clinton decided Wednesday to impose strict new standards designed to clean smog and soot from the air above U.S. cities and rural lands.
The standards are intended to reduce the number of deaths, illness and lost workdays linked to air pollution - even at the potentially expensive cost of restricting motor vehicles and installing new power plant technology.
The decision stunned environmentalists, who were expecting Clinton to weaken the proposal put forward in November by the Environmental Protection Agency. It disappointed business and industry, which had warned that the new benchmarks are too onerous. Clinton’s action also pits him against many of the nation’s mayors, who fear the economic impact that could follow.
Congress, whose members have expressed sharp opposition to the plan, has the authority to veto it. But a showdown is unlikely because it could put legislators in the politically awkward position of seeming to vote against youngsters, the elderly and others susceptible to respiratory diseases aggravated by air pollution.
The measure, the most far-reaching environmental course set in the 1990s, will force American cities and states to mount aggressive, costly efforts to clean up air pollution over the next 15 years. The new national limits mean that the air in more than 400 counties will be deemed unsafe.
Despite heated opposition from business groups, the new regulations won’t have a dramatic impact on Spokane, according to an air quality expert.
“Industry is not likely to be impacted at all. The wood stove user is most likely to feel the pinch,” said Ron Edgar of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
The EPA will set a new limit for particles four times smaller than those now regulated, which new studies link to severe health problems, such as asthma.
EPA is expected to announce the new particle standard by next week. Because it’s an annual average, it won’t make it harder for farmers to burn Kentucky bluegrass fields, Edgar said.
Spokane’s small particulates average 12 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air over the past three years, and the new limit is expected to be 15 micrograms, Edgar said.
Spokane does not violate current ozone standards, a major component of smog, and the new ozone rules will have little effect here.
EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner argued throughout the angry debate over the standards that scientific findings allowed her no room to soften the original proposal, and Clinton ultimately agreed. But the program will not be fully implemented for at least 15 years.
“If we have high standards for protecting the environment, but we’re flexible in how those standards are implemented, and we give adequate time and adequate support for technology and creativity … we can protect the environment and grow the economy,” Clinton said in a speech Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
Under the Clean Air Act, the government is required to set standards for air quality and update them based on scientific studies - without consideration of the economic impact. The standards establish the levels at which air is considered too dirty to be healthful.
Critics of the stricter standards, particularly those in an industry coalition supported by major utility companies and manufacturers, argued in a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign that the science was not clear about the impact soot and smog have on health.
Others said the new standards would lead to bans on the use of barbecues, fireworks and lawn mowers, as towns, cities and counties sought to eliminate sources of air pollution.
Some 411 counties would exceed the new standards for soot or smog or both; 134 counties violate existing limits. Failure by states to bring localities into compliance over the next 15 years could result in such harsh federal sanctions as a freeze on federal highway funds.
Under a multiple-step timetable, however, communities will have more than a decade and a half to reduce air pollution - by encouraging reduced use of automobiles by, for example, imposing river-crossing tolls in New York City or building mass transit systems in California; and by converting power plants to cleaner fuels.
The EPA predicts the plan will save 15,000 people from premature death, and prevent several hundred thousand asthma attacks and cases of bronchitis, especially among children.
It estimates the controls will cost businesses and consumers $6.6 billion to $8.5 billion a year beginning in 2007. Industry groups have predicted the dollar costs could be 10 times higher.
Officials at the EPA were nearly gleeful when word of Clinton’s decision reached them.
“This is huge. … I don’t think anyone thought it would come out this good,” said one senior aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
There was little concern that Congress would attempt to dilute the proposal. Just Tuesday, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, R-N.Y., announced that he would not only defend tough standards but lead any fight against weakening them.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = James Gerstenzang and Marla Cone Los Angeles Times Staff writer Karen Dorn Steele contributed to this report.