This month the summer smog season comes into full swing, when the inevitable "ozone alerts" remind us that a growing number of children and adults have trouble breathing due to air pollution. Ohio's air is some of the worst in the country. It's estimated that nearly 2,000 Ohioans die prematurely each year due to dirty air. On a recent trip to Cleveland, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman defended the President's Clear Skies initiative. It's a plan for reducing air toxins through market forces and voluntary compliance that's been sharply criticized by environmentalists. But behind this and other recent initiatives is a fundamental shift in federal regulation local groups fear could gut the Clean Air Act. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Standing beside an urban stream in Cuyahoga County, US EPA Administrator Christie Whitman speaks candidly about a new approach to government regulation.
Christie Whitman: We've done it from the top down and it worked, it needed to be done for the first 30 years. But we should take credit for what we did and understand that changed peoples' attitudes and sensitivities toward the environment and now a one-size-fits-all does not work.
Whitman is talking about a specific project to restore an urban stream. But her reference to a shift away from top-down regulation toward local programs that encourage voluntary compliance is viewed by environmentalists as a major change within the EPA. It's a change that many businesses welcome. Back in the 1970's when the Clean Air Act was passed, politicians agreed the sledgehammer approach was the only way to put a stop to massive air pollution. Thirty years later, federal regulators are searching for new ways to make meaningful improvements in air quality that don't involve decades of litigation. The Cleveland air toxins pilot program is one example. In 2001, a group of residents, agencies and businesses from three Cleveland neighborhoods met to see if they could come up with some low-cost, quick fix solutions that would improve air quality.
The Cleveland Clean Air Century Campaign will encourage communities to implement the new voluntary initiatives developed by local leaders. Amy Simpson of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group says, in the past, it's been hard to get businesses to go along.
Amy Simpson: One way to get them to do it is to fund them. And that's what this program does a great deal. We have about $600,000 to spend to buy refits for buses, for instance, that they would never have been able to afford otherwise.
Among the new initiatives being undertaken by the city of Cleveland are a no-idle program for school buses. Programs like these will eventually be replicated across the country, with funding for individual projects. But one of the largest single sources of air pollution in the Midwest is dirty coal-fired power plants. When the Clean Air Act was passed, older plants were grandfathered in and allowed to keep their pollution-generating equipment on the assumption they would eventually close. But many still continue to operate. Beginning in 1999, the EPA filed lawsuits against nine power companies for expanding their plants without obtaining New Source Review permits required by law. USEPA Midwest Administrator Tom Skinner says President Bush's Clear Skies initiative, unveiled in 2002, will put an end to years of litigation.
Tom Skinner: President Bush's Clear Skies initiative is one way that we see to make real improvements in that regard.
Under the Clear Skies plan, federal caps on sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury will be extended over ten years, allowing coal-fired plants to phase in modifications that will bring them into compliance. In the meantime, those plants will be able to buy pollution credits from companies whose emissions fall below federal guidelines. Administrator Whitman says the plan is modeled on another program that's been very successful.
Christie Whitman: The Acid Rain trading program. Now a lot of people were very skeptical about cap and trade, a lot of environmentalists, when this first went into effect. Now, even they say that cap and trade really works. In fact, we have seen greater reductions in sulphur than were called for under the act.
Utilities like FirstEnergy of Akron seem pleased with the Clear Skies proposal. FirstEnergy's southern Ohio Sammis plant was the first in the state to go to court over the grandfather clause. A decision is still pending. Ellen Raines is a company spokesperson.
Ellen Raines: It appears that Clear Skies as it stands today does provide for reasonable time frames. It does provide for a sequence of installing technologies that would make the most out of the investment. And again, this goes back to customer prices. We don't think our customers want to pay one dime more for electricity than they have to.
But Cleveland clean air advocates like Chris Trepal of EarthDay Coalition are fearful that Clear Skies could gut the Clean Air Act.
Chris Trepal: The new measure works on a national perspective and if you average everything out the air might be cleaner. But you're averaging things out over more people, over more space, over more time. And you're doing a lot of delaying and you're doing a lot of diluting.
Christie Whitman: Far from being a rollback, Clear Skies is actually the most aggressive thing that's gone right at the power plants - because this is aimed solely at power plants - that we have seen.
Chris Trepal: Clear Skies is sitting there in committee and subcommittee hearings right now. And it's important. If your kid has asthma, this is important to you, what's going on in Washington.
But that doesn't convince Trepal and others like her who question the EPA's modeling of pollution reductions under Clear Skies. Many environmentalists believe the new plan could actually allow utilities to pollute more than they do at present. They argue that Clear Skies doesn't at all address carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. And they're fearful that a threatened repeal of New Source Review could leave Ohioans - as well as residents in states downwind - still gasping for breath. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.