As the summer smog thickens around us, it's time to talk about something that for many of us is only a dream: clean air. By clean I simply mean healthy to breathe--air that doesn't leave one feeling sluggish all day, doesn't result in painful breathing and that perhaps even allows a view of the mountains just a few miles away.
It was public health, not a pristine image of blue skies, that our national lawmakers had in mind when they wrote the Clean Air Act in 1970 and strengthened it in 1977 and 1990. Since the passage of this law, tremendous progress has been made throughout the nation to reduce air pollution.
State and local environmental agencies in California have traditionally been national leaders in the area of air-quality control efforts. However, despite exceptional efforts and achievements by those agencies, California's air quality remains the worst in the nation. Over three-quarters of all Californians are exposed to health-threatening levels of air pollution.
Under the Clean Air Act, state and local agencies are required to develop long-term plans to show how they will achieve safe, clean air by specific dates. Due to its extraordinary problem, the Los Angeles area was given more time than any other city in the nation--until 2010.
However, in recent years these agencies have not successfully enacted plans demonstrating how they will meet the Clean Air Act's standards for public health. As a result of this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been ordered by the courts to craft federal implementation plans (FIPs) to ensure that someone provides an overall clean-air plan in these communities. Specifically, these court orders affect the South Coast (which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties), Sacramento and Ventura air basins.
The court-ordered plans proposed by the EPA in February require contributions from nearly every source of air pollution, including some sources that have not been involved before. Tough choices were made, and the EPA will be receiving strong reactions--and, we hope, some constructive alternatives--in public hearings, beginning today at AQMD headquarters in Diamond Bar, and in written comments through August. We are not here to impose any particular measure; we want to come up with the most environmentally and economically sound plan possible.
While we plan to do our best, there are limits to what we can effectively implement. We continue to believe--strongly--that the best plans can be put together only at the state and local level, where there is far more flexibility and where these decisions appropriately belong.
The EPA's approach in developing these federal plans, therefore, is to look for ways to support and augment state and regional clean-air planning efforts while working with the business, environmental and local government communities to develop the FIPs as an effective backstop. Through our workshops and locally generated focus groups, we have seen unprecedented dialogue among these groups over what the most cost-effective measures might be.
Ironically, this cooperative effort may overshadow the fact that the FIPs do not relieve state and local planners from their legal obligation to design and implement clean-air measures. A parallel process is occurring to produce a local plan--with hearings scheduled in coming weeks and adoption shortly thereafter. It would be a tragedy to focus only on the federal effort and ignore the action where it counts most. The residents of each affected community, each industry group and the appropriate state and local agencies must work to make state and local plans successful. And the federal government, while stepping up to the plate with a proposal, must continue to be as supportive as possible of those efforts. That is ultimately how the promise of the Clean Air Act will be kept.