Albion Monitor /News

Smokestack Companies Blow Off Smog Rules

by Jeffrey St. Clair

More than 400 counties now exceed federal air pollution levels
(IPS) The pollution shrouding the Grand Canyon, one of the most remote and least populated areas of North America, has its source in the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and refineries hundreds of miles away.

In California's national parks -- King's Canyon, Yosemite, and Sequoia -- toxic compounds in the air are stunting tree growth and killing alpine flora.

The U.S. Park Service now admits that air quality ranks high as a threat to the national park system. In dozens of parks, visibility is obscured by as much as 77 percent over what are considered natural conditions.

Smog is clogging the air. But the situation in U.S. cities is even worse.

More than 400 counties now exceed federal air pollution levels reguarly, posing a serious national health problem.

Lung ailments linked to tiny particles from the steel plant
No fewer than 185 scientific studies all point to the conclusion that the nation's air is becoming ever more toxic. Studies at the Harvard Medical School estimate that 60,000 people in the United States die prematurely every year from respiratory illnesses and heart attacks linked to air pollution.

In a report issued Nov. 29 by the Bill Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a modest tightening of standards on urban smog and fine-particle air pollution.

Although the proposed standards are far from the tight controls sought by most clean air advocates, early estimates suggest that the new regulations, if adopted, will mean that 300 new areas will be designated as having chronically unhealthy air. Under the new guidelines, a number of cities would be required to develop EPA-approved air quality management plans to reduce the emissions or risk losing federal funding for highways and other projects.

The regulations were released in draft form and are undergoing a 90-day public comment period. Final regulations will be released in the summer.

Smog, the sepia-colored haze that wafts over Los Angeles and dozens of other cities for much of the summer, forms in the lower atmosphere where gases such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with warm temperatures. The ingredients that form smog are spewed into the air from car exhausts and the smokestacks of oil refineries, power plants, and incinerators.

EPA-sponsored studies show that repeated exposure to ozone pollution causes permanent structural damage to the lungs. More than 46 percent of the U.S. population is regularly exposed to these dangerous conditions, but those who spend time outdoors, including children, construction workers, and people who exercise moderately, endure an increased risk of experiencing aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, and reductions in lung capacity.

The smokestack industries had been awaiting the EPA report with considerable nervousness. And with good reason.

For nearly 20 years they have largely escaped punitive restrictions on some of their most lethal activities. But with reams of new science showing the toxification of the air in U.S. cities, the long-delayed regulations target the biggest sources of smog and soot: oil refineries, power plants, chemical plants, steel factories, and incinerators, the core of the U.S. industrial economy.

The Geneva Steel Co. in Provo, Utah, provides one illustration of the effects of the smog on people's health. Ten years ago, Dr. C. Arden Pope, an economist at Brigham Young University, got some students to start examining hospital admissions in Provo, cross-referencing them to levels of production at the Provo steel plant.

The students' findings were dramatic. When Geneva Steel was running full tilt, admissions for lung ailments shot up, with the rate doubling for young children.

The test had the virtue of extreme clarity. The majority of people living in the region are Mormons, who for religious reasons do not smoke, and there is no other industry. The perpetrators were clear enough: tiny particles from the steel plant.

The American Petroleum Institute secured the services of Beckel and Cowan, a lobbying outfit with close links to the Democratic Party
Pope's study caused a huge commotion in the enviro-scientific and enviro-bureaucratic circles. Other studies confirmed the particularly lethal effect of fine particulates containing arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, vanadium and zinc. The EPA's previous focus had been on large particulates, including road dust, fly ash, cement kiln dust and other construction-related pollution.

Particulate pollution comes in two varieties: fine and coarse. Fine particles are defined as being less than 2.5 microns across, about half the diameter of a human hair. In contrast to coarse particles, the microscopic particles more typically derive from sulphur and nitrogen produced by refineries, smelters, power plants, slash burning, and incinerators.

When the EPA report was finally unveiled, however, the draft regulations were far less drastic than industry executives and lobbyists had feared.

There still remained plenty of time to further weaken them, and most of the burden for enforcing the measures would fall on more easily manipulated and intimidated municipalities rather than the federal government. Scenting blood, the industry groups turned up the volume on their attacks.

In the wake of the EPA report's release, a squadron of industry lobbyists -- among them the Air Quality Standards Coalition -- were deployed to discredit the mounting health data and science while simultaneously stressing that the utilities, steel plants, and refineries had done all they could, and that once again, the regulatory axe should fall on the motorist and the dry cleaner down the block.

One of the first to attack the science on which the regulations was based was Paul Bailey, health and environmental affairs director of the American Petroleum Institute, the $50 million a year trade association for domestic oil companies.

Bailey claimed that urban smog was no big deal and that people seemed "actually to adapt to it." On the subject of fine particulates, Bailey asserted that the "science is simply not good enough" to reach any regulatory conclusions.

Using the new air regulations as a pretext, Republican Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas announced to the TV cameras plans to overhaul the Clean Air Act and strip the EPA of its authority to implement new regulations. DeLay's congressional territory of south Houston is one of the most toxic in the nation and is packed with oil refineries, incinerators, and other industries that would be hit by the new air standards.

Of course, not all of the industry's lobbying activities were quite so confrontational. In order to spread its message to Democratic politicians and Clinton staffers, the American Petroleum Institute secured the services of Beckel and Cowan, a lobbying outfit run by Democratic Party operative -- and frequent co-host of the CNN TV program "Crossfire" -- Bob Beckel.

The interests of the incineration lobby was also placed in extremely capable Democratic hands. Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's second largest waste disposal company, hired Peter S. Knight, a lawyer/lobbyist with the powerhouse Washington firm of Wunder, Diefenderfer, Cannon, and Thelan.

Knight was for many years an aid to Vice President Al Gore during Gore's years in the U.S. Senate. Most recently, Knight served as chairman of the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign.

Among the other clients served by Knight's firm: Ashland Oil, Bituminous Coal Operators, the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition, Industrial Oil Consumers Group, Lonesome Dove Petroleum, Shell Oil, and the Oil Refiners Coalition for Competitive Markets.

The investment has paid off. Since the announcement of the draft air standards, EPA's Browner has assured industry leaders that the new regulations would not be imposed in anything resembling a draconian manner. Instead, Browner promises to "work state by state, city by city, and industry by industry, to develop a common-sense and cost-effective option for implementation of the standards."

She has told industry and municipal leaders the new regulations are still works in progress, suggesting there is a good chance that they will be whittled down even further.

Under the most optimistic scenario, it appears that smog- plagued cities would not have to submit plans to meet the new standards until 2002, and even then, they would not be held accountable for meeting such standards for more than a decade thereafter.

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Albion Monitor February 15, 1997 (

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