Atmosphere And Weather

Clean Air Act

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Perhaps no where in the United States is the success of the Clean Air Act more apparent than in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Known around the world as the Steel City, Pittsburgh was once described in its industrial heyday as "Hell with the lid off." It was an astute observation. Between its steel mills, coking operations, coal mines and other industrial activities, Pittsburgh was often dark as night by 11 a.m.

Pittsburgh passed its first clean air ordinance in 1895, but it had little bite, and was removed from the books in 1902. Subsequent attempts also achieved little. The city and area were cognizant of its air problems, but industry and economic growth took precedence. Then in 1948, Pittsburgh and the world had its eyes open to the impacts of poor air quality. Stagnant weather in the nearby city of Donora held pollution from the town's heavy industry in the air for days, killing 20 people and sickening about half of its population. Yet it still took until the 1960s before true legislative action began.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 blossomed from the 1963 Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. The Act was based on the need to protect public health and was the first piece of federal environmental legislation to allow citizens to sue violators. Born the same year as Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency, in its time, the 1970 act was the farthest reaching piece of social legislation in U.S. history. Perhaps the Clean Air Act's first true accomplishment was to raise awareness of the need for national air quality policy and regulation with deadlines and accountability. It started the ball rolling and tasked the country's newest federal agency with some tough work.

Early Clean Air Act achievements included the setting of national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), and the establishment of vehicle maintenance standards to cut air pollution. According to the EPA, since their inception, the NAAQS have lowered air concentrations of major pollutants, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide; particulate matter (PM 10) and lead by nearly 50 percent. Additionally, toxics from major industry, like chemical facilities, paper mills and refineries have fallen by almost 70 percent since 1970.

Amendments were made to the Act in 1977 to strengthen its impact, including new rules for industrial expansion in areas where air quality was particularly bad. Economic incentives were developed and used to further air quality gains. In some cases, states and regions not meeting national standards for air pollutants were threatened with the loss of all-important highway funds.

But the country was beginning to respond. Power plants were starting to install scrubber systems; one of the first was Pittsburgh's Duquesne Light in 1978. Mills began looking for ways to abate pollution from their many coal fired boilers. Those that did not or could not comply often chose to close, leading to political and social face-offs between economic and environmental interests.

The 1977 Amendments also included exemptions for some special interests, which were something of a setback. Car makers, for instance, continued to avoid facing demands to improve automobile emissions. But there still have been victories related to mobile source pollution. Of course the phase out of lead in gasoline resulted in the 98 percent decrease in lead emissions. At the same time, nitrogen oxide (NOx) from vehicles remained stable, particulate matter dropped by 22 percent and hydrocarbon emissions by 17 percent, even though the number of vehicle miles driven by Americans increased.

In 1990, Congress once again expanded the Clean Air Act, and EPA's authority to enforce it. Additionally, amendments to the Act focused on the necessity to find cost-effective means of abating air pollution. The 1990 amendments also introduced the Acid Rain program, which regulates sulfur dioxide (SO2) and NOx emissions from power plants. Since it went into action in 1995, the Acid Rain program, through cap and trade, has decreased SO2 by 41 percent from 1980 levels. The 1990 expansion also brought about the phase out of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), following the discovery that the substances were depleting the stratospheric ozone layer.

The 1970 Clean Air Act and its subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990 have made great strides in clearing the air of pollution in America. Ask any Pittsburgher, or visit sometime to get a real picture of how things have changed. From a town where men would change their shirt collars throughout the day to look fresh to a place where marathons and bike races take place, cleaner air has made all the difference.

There's still a long way to go not only in fighting air pollution, but in implementing rules and regulations still called for in the Clean Air Act. Yet the achievements that have been made show great promise for the future, particularly as the world faces the greenhouse gas puzzle that has lead to global climate change. Pollution can be controlled and abated through visionary legislation.

More about this author: Rita Mcconnell

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