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Commentary | CLEAN AIR DEBATE

. . . No, We Need Standards

November 07, 2000|ROBERT T. STAFFORD | Robert T. Stafford was a U.S. senator from Vermont (1971-1989) and served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

Conservatives, liberals and moderates alike should be alarmed at the possibility that a major right is in jeopardy: the right to know if the air we breathe is healthy.

In a decision fraught with potential for public harm, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today on a petition by the American Trucking Assn. and the United States Chamber of Commerce that would set up a virtually insurmountable barrier to the control of air pollutants that damage public health.

The business groups seek to repeal a 30-year-old principle, proposed by the Nixon administration and adopted by Congress in the 1970 Clean Air Act, that national clean air standards should be based on science rather than politics. That principle has been the driving force behind three decades of clean air progress. Without that principle, there would be no coherent justification for cleanup of automobiles, sport utility vehicles, big diesel trucks, factories or coal-burning electric utility plants.

That principle has stood intact through five subsequent presidents and 15 Congresses. Big business groups have asked the Supreme Court to repeal it on several occasions, and each time the high court said no, we don't want to hear the case.

The chamber and its business allies want to require that national clean air standards pass a cost-benefit test. At first glance, this might seem reasonable. Surely we need to consider costs in our strategies to clean up polluted air.

The truth is we already do this. Costs are major considerations in deciding which sources of pollution to tackle and in what time frame.

But the business groups seek to infuse consideration of cost (a political calculation) into the very definition of what constitutes healthful air quality--a definition that, since 1970, has been made solely on scientific grounds. In other words, the anti-clean air industries would protect the public health only if it doesn't cost them too much. And if it is deemed too expensive, the public doesn't even get to know how unhealthy the air is.

How would we do this? How do we make those calculations? Who computes the cost of a child who can't play outside because of air pollution-induced asthma? What, after all, is the value of a few IQ points for a child? What, for that matter, is the value of a human life?

I am reminded of the words of my friend and former colleague, the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.). He took issue with those in Congress--and those on the bench--who might want to subject air quality standards to a cost-benefit test.

"I would caution those who would jump on the cost-benefit bandwagon to do their homework," Chafee said. "It is much cheaper to achieve any particular level of ozone control in Minneapolis than it is in Philadelphia because of differences in meteorology and the regional transport of pollutants. Whose costs and benefits do we consider when we set the national ambient air quality standard for ozone? Are the people in Minneapolis to be denied the protection that they can afford because the same standard would be too expensive in Philadelphia? Do all of us want to live under the air pollution regulations that would be readily affordable in Los Angeles?"

Chafee went on to note that "[the system] has produced marvelous results in public health and air quality over the past 30 years."

In words that I hope the Supreme Court keeps in mind, Chafee concluded: "Clean air should be our real concern. And we should be loath to throw out a law that has produced so many wonderful results."

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