Skip to comments.Clean air debate needs clear talk
Posted on 12/23/2003 10:32:22 AM PST by Holly_P
In some of the 317 counties in 30 states that are out of compliance with Clean Air Act standards, motorists could park every single vehicle and manufacturers could shut down every single plant -- and the air still wouldn't pass federal muster.
Why? Air moves. A local solution, even with a dramatic change in the way people live and conduct commerce, may have little or no impact on air quality compliance. "We end up with a system in which the only way to clean up the air is to sue their neighbors," said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Leavitt in a meeting here last week. "They have no tools to solve their problem unless we get a national solution."
The Bush administration has proposed one. "It is," said Leavitt, "the biggest single investment we have ever made for the country on air quality" and will achieve what "would be the greatest reduction in air pollution ever undertaken in this country, except for acid rain." It calls for a 70 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide by 2015.
Nitrogen oxide and a class of pollutants known as volatile organic compounds combine under high heat, light and stagnant air to form ozone, which in metro Atlanta "has not become worse since the mid-'70s, when measurements began," says Harold Brown of Athens, author of "The Greening of Georgia." The EPA changed measurement standards in 1997, so when commentators talk about "bad air days" becoming more frequent, they are making truthful, but misleading, statements to support a point of view.
In the eastern half of the country, sulfur dioxide comes primarily from burning coal, though 50-75 percent of it worldwide comes from natural sources, such as volcanoes. Acid rain is widely blamed on sulfur dioxide. In Georgia, it too is declining. In Fulton County, Brown reports that concentrations dropped from 15 parts per billion in 1970 to 3.5 in 2000.
We can and should quibble about what's necessary and affordable, but that rarely happens. I asked Leavitt why we almost never read or hear rational debate on issues related to the environment. He has a three-part explanation.
The first, he said, is that people get emotional about the subject. "Issues on the environment are about the way people view their relationship to the Earth; it's very personal to them." The issues draw lots of energy and controversy because they affect economic, social, energy, transportation and international policies, he continued.
The second reason, Leavitt said, is that "these things tend to play out at the extremes." That prompts both sides to hire public relations experts, lawyers and scientists to argue their positions. Usually, then "we find a solution after all this that could have been foreseen at the start of this process."
And finally, he said, there are at times substantial disagreement within the scientific community. On an issue such as global warming, for example, honest scientists come to different conclusions based on the models they construct and the assumptions they make. The choice made, the facts and assumptions plugged in, can lead to dramatically different projected scenarios -- hence the debate over global warming.
One fact drawn out of context -- arsenic in drinking water, mercury in fish, pollution in the air -- tells us little. Mostly it is intended to frighten or to lead the unsuspecting to a political conclusion: President Bush is bad, politicians are bought, business is greedy and nobody cares -- so send your check to this or that special-interest group protector.
There's got to be a better way for residents to establish actual risk and weigh remedies. This diet of fright and intimidation is no longer nourishing.
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