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Clearing the Air: An Examination of EPA’s Proposed Regulations for Particulate Matter and Ozone

Carol M. Browner
Remarks Prepared for American Enterprise Institute Conference
“Clearing the Air: An Examination of EPA’s Proposed
Regulations for Particulate Matter and Ozone”

Washington, DC
February 10, 1997

Thank you, Bob [Hahn] and Chris [DeMuth] for your kind introductions.  And thanks to everyone at AEI for inviting me here to open this conference.

I’m rather stunned that such a benign, non-controversial topic would bring so many of you out this early on a Monday morning.

Seriously, though, I do appreciate the opportunity to discuss EPA’s newly proposed national air quality standards for two of the most widespread harmful pollutants, ozone and particulate matter -- better known as smog and soot.

I will try to be brief in my remarks because I want to give you ample time to ask questions.

I know that this is a contentious issue -- and that many of you disagree with the need for these new standards.  So I think it would be helpful if I give you some background on how we got to where we are today.

The best place to begin is with the Clean Air Act.  Born under President Nixon, amended and strengthened under President Bush, the Clean Air Act is the embodiment of an ongoing, bipartisan desire to protect all Americans from the harmful effects of breathing polluted air.

By any measure, this law has been an astounding success.  Since its passage  a quarter-century ago, the country’s population has risen by 28 percent and the economy has nearly doubled.  Yet emissions of the six major pollutants or their precursors have actually dropped by 29 percent.
The economy grows and the air gets cleaner.  Now that’s a level of progress we can all be proud of.

And I want to thank you for it.  Many businesses across a wide range of industries have dedicated their best minds to the task of meeting, and even exceeding, the standards.  We have worked together -- the EPA and representatives of businesses both large and small -- to develop common sense and cost-effective means of reducing air pollution and protecting the public health.

It can be done.  We’ve done it before.  And I know we can do it again.

Some of you have asked: “So why -- at a time when the air is getting cleaner, at a time when we are within field goal range -- are you proposing to move back the goal posts?  Why change the standards now?”

Let me first say that we’re not moving anything.  The goal is -- and always has been -- clean air.  Nothing in that has changed.

What has changed is the science.  Science is always coming up with better ways to measure the quality of the air we breathe, as well as how people are affected by polluted air and at what levels.

The Clean Air Act itself contemplates this march of technology.

It includes language directing EPA to review the public standards for major air pollutants at least every five years, in order to ensure that they reflect the best current science.  The Clean Air Act assumes that, over the years, the science may change.  And therefore it lays out a procedure -- a very narrow procedure -- to obtain the best available, current science and, if needed, revise the standards.  This is to ensure that we never get to the point where the government tells Americans their air is healthy to breathe, when the scientific community knows that, in fact, it is not.

As many of you know, EPA is now under court-ordered deadline to fulfill this obligation and to publish a final decision on revisions to the particulate matter standards by the end of June.  For many reasons -- including the fact that PM and ozone are closely related as components of urban smog, and to facilitate local compliance with any new standards -- we have put the ozone revision process on a parallel track.

In accordance with what the law requires, EPA asked an independent panel of 21 scientists and technical experts from academia, research institutes, public health organizations and industry to review our work and the underlying health studies -- and to make recommendations.  

That panel -- known as the Clean Air Standards Advisory Committee, or CASAC -- conducted 11 meetings, all open to the public, with a total of 124 hours of public discussion.  EPA has held further public meetings, at which hundreds of representatives from industry, governments, organizations -- as well as members of the public -- have offered their views.

In fact, I can safely say that this has been the most extensive scientific review and public outreach process ever conducted by EPA for public health standards.

The conclusion of the independent panel, and consequently of the EPA staff, is that the most recent scientific information provides sufficient evidence that serious health effects are occurring in children, the elderly and other sensitive populations at particulate matter and ozone concentrations at and below our existing standards.

So, on each pollutant, we have proposed new, stronger standards -- from within the range given to us by the panel of independent scientists in the case of ozone -- and, in the case of PM, from within the range of opinion of the invidual panel members.

For ozone, we have proposed to change the standard from 0.12 parts per million measured over one hour to a standard of .08 parts per million measured over eight hours.  In effect, the 0.12 one-hour standard is roughly equivalent to .09 when measured over eight hours.  To provide the needed measure of public health protection, the concentration would be changed from .09 to .08.

For particulate matter, we would maintain our current standard on the larger, “coarse” particles, and we propose a new standard on smaller particles -- those at or below 2.5 micrometers in diameter -- which the current, best available science has determined are damaging to human health.

The science is clear and compelling.  Taken together, these proposed standards would provide new protections to nearly 133 million Americans, including 40 million children. We’re talking about reducing the number of people who experience adverse health effects such as lung inflammation and premature aging of the lungs.  We’re talking about fewer asthma attacks.  We’re talking about protecting elderly people.  We’re talking about protecting our children.

Let me just say at this point that this has been one of the toughest issues that I have faced in my four years at EPA.  It is probably the toughest issue I will ever face.  It is complex.  It is controversial.

But, under the law, we have to protect the public health.  We have to go where the best available science leads us.  Congress also wisely recognized that we should protect the public health with an adequate margin of safety.  That’s what the law requires.  That’s the bottom line.

And the best, current, peer-reviewed, fully-debated scientific conclusions are that too many Americans are not being protected by the current standards for these pollutants.  For EPA, there is quite literally no other alternative but to propose to strengthen the public health standards.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no role for the practicalities of attaining these protections.  There is such a role when it comes to implementing the standards.  In that case, it certainly is appropriate to consider costs.  And I want to assure you that, if these new standards are adopted, EPA will work with all of you -- state governments, local governments, community leaders, businesses large and small -- to find cost-effective and common sense strategies for meeting them.

Which brings us back to the ol’ backyard barbeque.

I know that many of you are not happy with these proposed standards.  We want to keep the lines of communication open.  We want to hear your arguments.  And we take very seriously our obligation to carefully consider all public comment before making a final decision.

I would remind you that the period of public comment is still in effect.  In fact, as you may know, the Justice Department, at my request, has asked the courts for a 60-day extension of the public comment period, in order that the American people may have a thorough, fair and informed public debate on the proposals.

But, I implore you, let’s keep it on the level.  This is a vital issue of tremendous importance to millions of American families.  It is not about outdoor barbeques, lawnmowers and fireplaces.  It is about finding ways in which we can all work together to ensure that the air we breathe is healthy, and that our standards protect the greatest possible number of Americans.

This is, I believe, what the American people want from all of us -- governments, businesses, community groups and others -- to work together toward common ground and a cleaner, more healthy environment.

We owe them our best effort.

Thank you.  And now to your questions.