Should States Take Care of Pollution?

Should States Take Care of Pollution?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Should States Take Care of Pollution?
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Since his nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt has asserted that protection of our nation’s air and water quality, control of toxic chemicals, and even addressing climate disruption should be the responsibility of the states, not the EPA.  

This argument was made in the early days of pollution control. In a number of enactments between 1953 and 1967, Congress delegated air pollution control to the states. In 1967, the states were asked to establish health standards based on federal health research and to adopt pollution controls to achieve the standards.  Because of the almost complete lack of response (except in California and New York), Congress enacted the Clean Air Act of 1970, giving EPA power to cut pollution. Over the 47 intervening years, this law has dramatically improved our health and the quality of our air.

Why were the states unable to make progress?  First, pollution is no respecter of state lines, but states have very little ability to compel out-of-state polluters to cut their emissions. Second, many of the industries most responsible for air pollution—electric power generation, oil, and motor vehicles, for example—have more political power than most states. Third, companies have the ability to play one state off against another, with the result that states will compete against each other for industry by lowering their pollution control standards. And finally, except for California, no state is able or willing to devote the resources to pollution control that are available to the federal government.

The CAA has been successful precisely because the most important programs are administered and enforced by the federal EPA, not the states. In 1970, for example, Congress mandated the auto industry reduce emissions by 90 percent in four years, and put EPA in charge of making sure the reductions took place. A decade later Americans drove cars that met the standards. In the process, the industry learned a lot about combustion, which led to further breakthroughs that allow today’s cars to get far better fuel economy and emit much less pollution than those original CAA emission standards.

Motor vehicles used to run on leaded gasoline too. Tetraethyl lead, added to gasoline to allow higher compression without “knocking,” is a highly toxic compound that lowers the IQ of people exposed and increases anti-social behavior. As a result of EPA regulations forcing the oil industry to remove lead from nearly all fuels, the air we breathe now is essentially lead free.

Coal-fired electric generating plants produced vast quantities of sulfur and nitrogen oxides that changed the chemical composition of rain over the eastern half of the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The resulting “acid rain” damaged forests, streams and soils, and threatened populations of trout and other fish species. When states tried to control these emissions, power companies just installed huge smokestacks – some of them 100 stories tall -- to disperse their pollutants to other states and regions, turning what had been a local problem into one for the whole eastern half of the U.S. Finally, Congress passed a new “acid rain” program, putting EPA on the job. By 2012, national sulfur oxide emissions had fallen about 75 percent, and nitrogen oxides by more than two-thirds, at a cost a fraction of that claimed initially by the industry.

In addition to these conspicuous successes, EPA rules have also produced drastic reductions in emissions of toxic mercury from electric power generators; other regulations have eliminated ozone-depleting chemicals from use; and well over 100 regulations to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals have been adopted. In the last few years, EPA has promulgated regulations to cut emissions of carbon and other global warming pollutants from motor vehicles and electric power generation, among others. These are the regulations Mr. Pruitt wants to eliminate if he is confirmed.

California, with an economy larger than all but a handful of countries, has matched some of these accomplishments. But could the other states have adopted such programs? Obviously not. The problems are too big, the politics too intimidating, the resource demands too daunting.

Solving problems that affect everyone is a reason why we have a federal government. To say that the states should deal with air and water pollution and other national pollution problems is to say that they will not be dealt with. Because that option was rejected 47 years ago, we are healthier and our air and water are cleaner. Why would we want to change that?

Richard Ayres is a longtime environmental attorney and co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council.

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