A Victory for Clean Air

Copyright 1998 New York Times
September 29, 1998

After two decades of delay and political debate, the Environmental Protection Agency has now moved decisively to deal with windblown pollution that originates mainly in the Midwest and drifts eastward to poison the air over New York and other Northeastern states. Last Thursday Carol Browner, the E.P.A. Administrator, ordered 22 states to sharply reduce emissions of smog-producing nitrogen oxides. Her ruling represents a triumph of science and common sense over a sustained lobbying campaign by the Midwestern governors and the coal-fired electric utilities that will bear most of the cost of the new program.

The new regulations call for a 28 percent reduction in emissions over the entire 22-state area in the next nine years. New York and New Jersey must undertake modest reductions of 6 and 9 percent respectively, but more than half the reductions will be extracted from just six states -- Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia -- each of which will be required to cut emissions by nearly a third or more.

Although the states are given considerable flexibility in meeting their individual targets, the main burden will fall on the big Midwestern utility companies, which produce more than half the nitrogen oxides that travel downwind to neighboring states and will now be forced to upgrade existing pollution controls or invest in newer clean-air technologies. Despite industry complaints that the rules are unjust and unaffordable, Ms. Browner estimates that the cost will average about $1.7 billion annually over the next 15 years, which, she says, would raise the average household's electric utility bill by about $1 a month.

This is a clear victory for public health. Smog not only clouds the air but aggravates a range of respiratory diseases. One of the collateral benefits of the new rule will be to bring many areas of the country into compliance with strict new health standards for smog announced last year. About 31 million people live in areas where the rule will clean up the air enough to meet the new standards.

A bill offered in Congress earlier this year by New York's two Senators, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D'Amato, also seeks cuts in nitrogen oxide emissions as well as a 50 percent cut in emissions of sulfur dioxide, the main cause of acid rain. Ms. Browner's action may make the nitrogen oxide section of the bill less urgent, but the two Senators should keep pressing forward with their efforts to cut sulfur dioxide, which continues to poison lakes and streams in the Adirondacks and other Northeastern forests. They can expect another tough political battle, since the same utilities that produce nitrogen oxides also produce the chemicals that form acid rain. But Ms. Browner's strong stand should give them heart.

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