By Donella Meadows
–July 30, 1992–
The history of the Clean Air Act is worth knowing, not just to avoid repeating it, but to get a sense of how long it takes to solve environmental problems — or not solve them, as the case may be.
The first smoke control act was implemented in Los Angeles in 1905. It was strengthened thereafter at frequent intervals. But the city kept growing, and the air kept getting worse. Finally in 1943 came the first recorded full-fledged L.A. smog. The ensuing outrage focused upon two suspects: a butadiene plant making synthetic rubber and the city’s backyard trash burners. Trash burning was banned. The butadiene plant spent $1.5 million to clean up its emissions.
The rest of the country preferred to think that only Los Angeles had an air problem until 1948, when a thermal inversion wrapped Donora, Pennsylvania, in coal fumes for six days. Twenty people died, six thousand became ill. Shortly thereafter a worse smog hit London and killed nearly 800 people.
Clean air bills failed in Congress every year between 1950 and 1954. Finally in 1955 a federal law declared that air pollution is a local concern, but allocated $5 million for pollution abatement research.
Note the timing. From first acknowledged crisis in 1943 to first tentative national response: 12 years.
Back in Los Angeles a professor of biochemistry at Caltech named A.J. Haagen-Smit had been analyzing Pasadena air. In 1950 he said that smog happens when sunlight causes two kinds of air pollutants — hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, or NOx — to react together and generate ozone and other noxious gases. The two main sources of hydrocarbons and NOx were oil refineries and cars.
No, not CARS! What followed was a classic exercise in denial, one that sounds like discussions about the ozone layer in the 1970s, or global warming today.
Angry citizens accused Haagen-Smit of fingering “the little guy’s car” instead of the big manufacturers. Oil companies hired the Stanford Research Institute to challenge Haagen-Smit. “Much more work must be done before any authoritative answers can be given,” intoned SRI. “I didn’t have any public relations agent, but they had,” Haagen-Smit says, “and it was very unpleasant.”
In 1953 scientists of the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District verified Haagen-Smit’s findings and recommended a rapid-transit system. In 1954 auto industry experts visited L.A. and concluded that more research was necessary. The car companies launched a well-publicized million-dollar-a-year research program, which concluded in 1956 that motor vehicles do cause SOME smog. By 1957 virtually all independent scientists agreed that motor vehicles are the primary culprit. The auto companies claimed that Los Angeles is a special case — a position they maintained until 1960.
From the first correct explanation of the problem to its acceptance by the most vested interest: 10 years.
Los Angeles considered car pools, mass transit, and a “smog tax” on drivers, but its main thrust was the technical fix. It searched for an antipollution device, and in this effort the auto companies were cooperative. By 1961 General Motors had developed a crankcase control device. California passed a law in 1962 that required it to be installed on all cars by 1964.
Mechanics, used-car dealers, and automobile clubs stirred up the populace with worries about car performance and maintenance. The auto companies said they couldn’t have the devices ready until 1967. Furthermore they had just invented the catalytic converter, a superior technology. The first cars actually fitted with catalytic converters began appearing in California in 1967.
From first search for technical fix to first implementation: seven years. Technology can move much faster than politics.
Other cities were learning to monitor air pollution and finding their air quality deficient. In 1963 the federal Clean Air Act became law. Its main function was still to provide technical and financial assistance to state and local governments. But the Act also authorized the federal government to set “safe” standards for seven major air pollutants– which it finally got around to doing in 1970. The states were required to meet them by 1975.
From first legislation to first quantitative performance deadline: 12 years.
Two years after the deadline 78 cities still violated the ozone standard. The deadline was postponed to 1982. The most polluted cities asked for extensions to 1987. The Clean Air Act stipulated construction bans on non-complying areas, but none were enforced. By 1988 ninety urban areas, where 150 million people lived, still exceeded federal standards for ozone and carbon monoxide. The average vehicle in California was emitting 85 percent less pollution per mile than in 1970, but the number of vehicles and the miles per vehicle were growing.
In 1990 new amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed. They expanded the original list of seven regulated air pollutants to include hazardous chemicals. They called for nationwide cuts in sulfur oxides by 35 percent and NOx by six percent. And they extended the deadline for meeting the ozone standard until 2007, except for Los Angeles, which was given until 2010.
Total deadline extensions: 35 years and counting. Meanwhile Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness is issuing secret moratoria on clean-air regulations for special industries.
From the first Los Angeles smog to the current compliance deadline of 2010 (assuming it will be realized) makes a 67 year delay. There have been real achievements along the way. The easiest pollutants to deal with — visible smoke, lead from gasoline — have improved significantly. The most difficult — NOx, ozone — have been kept roughly constant in the face of enormous growth in numbers of people, tailpipes, smokestacks.
This history reveals not only the long lags in the implementation of regulation, it also reveals the real purpose of the regulation, as opposed to its rhetoric. The purpose is clearly not to protect the health of people in any hurry. It is to allow the economy to go on growing while the environment does not get much worse. Meanwhile, a third generation of children is growing up breathing unhealthy air.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992