Air pollution in the nation’s smoggiest cities dropped 10% during the past decade, and 10 million fewer Americans are breathing unhealthful air, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly announced Wednesday in Los Angeles.
Although comparable progress has been made in Southern California, the region continues to lead the nation in dirty air.
Despite the gains, Reilly appeared concerned over increasing calls to relax environmental controls because of the current economic downturn. He warned that 74 million Americans still live in cities that fail to meet federal clean air standards.
“We celebrate (clean air’s) success but increasingly see lamentations about its costs,” Reilly told 150 people attending Town Hall of California, a public affairs forum at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
“We cannot as a nation reconsider objectives set so carefully and after such review every time we enter a period of economic difficulty,” Reilly told reporters after his speech.
During the past several months, some of the EPA’s environmental programs have been targeted by critics within the Bush Administration who are concerned about their costs.
They have proposed changes in the nation’s wetlands policy that could remove development restrictions on 30% to 50% of all existing wetlands. In addition, the Council on Competitiveness headed by Vice President Dan Quayle is attempting to weaken proposed enforcement provisions of the federal Clean Air Act approved last year.
On Wednesday, however, Reilly defended the Bush Administration’s record on implementing the Clean Air Act. In the year since the bill was enacted, Reilly said, 38 of 85 rules needed to carry out the landmark legislation have been put on the books.
“We could not have done that without the strong support of President Bush and the Administration,” Reilly said.
Still, both in his remarks at Town Hall and at a press conference that followed, Reilly repeatedly urged the nation to “stay the course.”
“Critics of these clean air programs have complained about their high price tag,” Reilly told the audience. “The costs are substantial.”
He said they would approach $23 billion by the year 2005. The act mandates tougher standards on a wide range of polluters, from power plants to automobiles.
But for every $1 billion in compliance costs, Reilly said 20,000 new jobs will be created. Tougher environmental laws can stimulate new research and development and lead to new products and services, in addition to cleaner air and better health, he said.
“These are often jobs in cutting edge, innovative technologies. They are going to be technologies the world will beat a path to our door to buy,” Reilly told reporters. He noted that environmental management is more than a $100-billion-a-year business in the United States.
The clean air gains of the past 10 years, he said, were achieved at a time when the nation’s gross national product grew by 72%.
Among the gains he outlined were a 10% reduction in urban smog nationally, an 85% reduction in atmospheric lead levels, a 29% cut in carbon monoxide levels, an 8% drop in smog-forming nitrogen dioxide emissions and a 24% reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain and acid fog.
An estimated 74 million Americans still breathe unhealthful air, but that is 10 million less than in 1989, primarily because of lower carbon monoxide levels and lower concentrations of small particles from dust, soot and air pollution emissions. The improvement results least partly from improved gasoline formulas.
Of those people breathing unhealthful air, 63 million live in counties that regularly exceed the federal smog standard, nearly 22 million live in counties exceeding the carbon monoxide standard and nearly 19 million reside in areas violating the particulate standards. Many of the areas violate more than one air pollutant standard.
In the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, there was a 60% reduction in the number of “unhealthful days” over a 10-year period. But the region still falls below clean air standards 163 days a year, far more than any other urban area.
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