FEBRUARY 18, 1997
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new clean air standards that have been criticized by some industry, state and local officials. The new standards would ban emission of microscopic particulates that current standards allow. The EPA says recent research supports the new measures, but opponents question the scientific validity of the proposal. Elizabeth Brackett of Chicago's WTTW examines the controversy.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Most of what pours out of the stacks at this Mobil Oil refinery in Joliet, Illinois is steam, but not all of it. Some of it is particulate matter and gases that make up soot and smog.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
November 27, 1996:
A report on the EPA's proposed tougher air pollution regulations.
December 21, 1995:
Spencer Michels reports on the political and economic realities facing the Environmental Protection Agency.
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REFINERY WORKER : Okay. That is an alarm.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So you can see what happens. Thatís a real alarm?
REFINERY WORKER: This was a real alarm.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What comes out of the stacks is monitored very carefully at the Mobil Refinery. Alarm bells rang frequently the day we were there. But even with the millions of dollars in pollution control equipment the refinery was out of compliance for a time last year.
SPOKESMAN: We were in a situation where we were increasing the make of some of our small particles in the interest of increasing our profitability, so it go to the point where we had a few thirty violations of 30 percent opacity.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The refinery manager, Wyman Robb, says his industry has done a lot to clean up the air.
WYMAN ROBB, Midwest Manager, Mobil Oil: Weíve made a lot of investments in a lot of industries over the last 10 to 15 years that are continuing to show progress in improving the ambient air quality throughout the United States and every year it gets a little bit better.
(MOTHER WITH CHILDREN)
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the air hasnít gotten enough better to help the Damitz kids. Eight year old Kyle and ten year old Jeff both have asthma. Kyleís is so severe he has had a permanent shunt implanted in his chest to enable him to receive large dosages of steroids and gamma globulin. Even so, on bad air days the boys have trouble.
KYLE DAMITZ, Asthma Patient: It feels like you canít breath a lot of the time.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What does your chest feel like?
KYLE DAMITZ: It feels like itís all swollen up.
JEFF DAMITZ, Asthma Patient: It feels like my chest is closing up from my air ways, and I canít breath, and it feels like Iím suffocating.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Damitz boys are not alone. The Environmental Protection Agency says asthma in children has increased by 118 percent between 1980 and 1993 and is now the leading cause of hospital admissions for children. Dr. Howard Ehrman sees an ever increasing number of children with asthma in the public health clinic in an Hispanic Chicago neighborhood, a neighborhood dominated by the stacks of two of the cityís coal burning power plants. Chicago is out of compliance for EPA ozone, or smog, standards, though it meets the standards for particulate matter, the tiny soot produced by industries.
DR. HOWARD EHRMAN, Cook County Hospital: We thought when we passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 that, for example, that particulate matter at a certain size, which is classified as 10 micrograms, would be very important in terms of cleaning up the air, and it has made tremendous differences in cleaning up the air. But the science continues to evolve and science in medicine and health, and people themselves know that, for example, itís very hard to know anybody anymore who doesnít either have a family member or close friend who doesnít have asthma. Whatís happened is weíve found out that the particle size is much smaller than we originally thought that can cause even greater damage. Very simply, the smaller particles can get further down in the lungs and cause damage to things that the larger particles canít.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The new science has prompted the EPA to propose tough new standards for air quality. Public hearings to discuss the controversial standards were held in four cities across the country in January. The EPA says the implementation of the new standards could prevent 40,000 premature deaths a year and reduce asthma episodes by more than a quarter million cases every year. Both proponents and opponents have hired public relations firms and launched expensive print and radio campaigns.
AD SPOKESWOMAN: As a mother I want stronger clean air standards to protect my kids. Sure weíve made progress cleaning up the air but not enough to protect kids from asthma attacks.
PERSON IN RADIO AD: (Citizens for a Sound Economy) Iím a pediatrician. Kids with asthma? Most of itís caused by bad indoor air, you know, dust mites, stuff like that.
OTHER PERSON IN AD: Sounds like the bureaucrats in Washington are scheming to keep their jobs.
ANOTHER PERSON IN RADIO AD: Son, air quality has been getting better the way it is. I guess theyíve got to have something new to work on.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A coalition of industry groups held a news conference the day the Chicago hearings began.
DAVID SYKUTA, Partnership for Environmental Progress: The regulations could easily, in effect, be mandating a lifestyle police. See here my friend, the snow blower, all of us will be using the next several days, this could become an endangered item in the city, the common barbecue grill, once again, perhaps an endangered species.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mary Nichols, the EPAís top administrator for air quality, chaired the hearings in Chicago.
MARY NICHOLS, EPA: Those are really scare tactics that are designed to try to galvanize people into thinking that their fundamental rights are going to be infringed, or that, you know, the government is going to come in and tear their lawn mower away. Not only is there no history to support that kind of fear, but itís absolutely contrary the way the whole process works.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But many small business owners have felt shut out of that process. These landscape contractors and nursery owners, getting together at their yearly trade show, were worried about what the new standards would mean to their bottom line.
SCOTT McADAM, Landscape Contractor: If it meant going back to pushing a hand lawn mower and people wanted to pay for that and that was the right way to go about it, this industry would do it. But I question if, people, No. 1, if thatís something we really need, which I donít believe we do. No. 2, I question if there really are some standards that are fair and that have been researched so that we can really judge how weíre performing.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The EPA says it is required by law to review the clean air standards every five years and that proposals to revise them are based solely on the effect on public health, not on economic impact.
MARY NICHOLS, EPA: I think that there is a lot of common sense behind that notion because I think there is a basic public right to know whether the air that theyíre breathing is healthy or not. Then you can decide how much cleaner you can afford to make it as a society, but I think the goal really should be just based on health.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: If the new standards are adopted, Mobil would be out of compliance almost all of the time. Millions would again have to be spent not only to control what comes out of the stacks but to reformulate the refineryís gasoline products so customers would not violate the new standards.
WYMAN ROBB, MOBIL: For us, itís going to mean significant increased capital expenditures that donít appear to be justified based on scientific data that has been put forward by the EPA.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Attacking the lack of scientific data is often done by those who oppose the standards. And there was some division among an advisory panel of scientists convened by the EPA. In a letter to the administrator panel members said, "The deadlines did not allow adequate time to analyze, integrate, interpret and debate the data on this very complex issue." But Nichols insists the science is there.
MARY NICHOLS, EPA: We are somewhat taken aback by some of the charges that weíve heard about how the standards are not based on sound science because this is the most extensive peer review science process that we know of ever engaged in by the Environmental Protection Agency, and frankly, we think itís a model of what public science really ought to be.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Maureen Damitz says she doesnít need a panel of scientists to tell her the air affects her childrenís asthma. She knows as soon as they try and play outside on bad air days. And as for a cost/benefit analysis:
MAUREEN DAMITZ: I look at my pocketbook and what asthmaís costing us in their medical treatments. Kyleís bills this year will cap out about $50,000-$55,000 dollars. And Jeff has had a good year. Heís been what I call healthy. Just maintaining Jeffrey has cost us around $6,000. And while we have insurance, we pay 20 percent of all that, so weíre $12,000 out of pocket, so if I pay a few more pennies for gas, a few more pennies for something manufactured, itís going to be split amongst many people, not just hitting me.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But state and local officials also question the standards. Chicagoís Commissioner of the Environment.
HENRY HENDERSON, Commissioner of Environment, City of Chicago: Standards, themselves, do not improve clean air; it is clean air that improves the public health. And that can happen only through a range of programs that actually work.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago already has restrictions against industrial development because of the cityís failure to comply with the current ozone standards. Chicagoís commissioner says the news standards could have a negative impact on public health.
HENRY HENDERSON: It will drive further jobs from the city. It will drive further employment opportunities, and urban sprawl and all of the transportation problems that are associated with that are the major focus and major source of the degradation of our air quality.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The EPA says Chicago and other urban areas will be given added time to meet the proposed deadline. Right now Chicago has until 2003 to come into compliance for ozone. If the new standards are accepted, the city will be given another 10 years to meet the deadline. The EPA says final decisions on the new standards will be published in June of this year.