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September 14, 2010

Clean Air Act at 40 - breathing easier, but battles loom

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Air Act, a sweeping environmental law that's widely credited with helping millions of Americans breathe easier - and even saving lives - but is still the focus of fierce debates. 

The Baltimore area once had such bad summertime smog that its air ranked among the nation's unhealthiest, second or third only to Los Angeles'.   The air quality has improved in both places since then, with ground-level ozone pollution concentrations declining.  Acid rain, once blamed for killing lakes and streams in the Northeast, has also abated.

Those gains didn't come without conflict, as industries warned they'd be ruined by requirements for now widely accepted pollution controls like putting catalytic converters on cars and scrubbers on coal-burning power plants, and removing lead from gasoline.  Nationally, chronic ozone levels were 14 percent lower in 2008  than in 1990, the year Congress made its last major revision of the law.  Other pollutants were down even more. (Smog, though, is heavily influenced by weather, and this summer's extreme temperatures have pushed ozone levels back up this year - though still not to the extremes seen in decades past.)

Even so, the law remains a battleground, as air-quality standards have been repeatedly tightened in response to new research indicating some segments of the population still suffer health problems from chronic exposure to lower levels of ozone and fine particulates.   There's a fight now over a new move to lower ozone limits again.  

The biggest struggle, though, is over the EPA's use of the Clean Air Act to regulate climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.  With climate-change legislation stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has moved ahead with moves to track and ultimately limit carbon dioxide emissions, relying on a Bush-era Supreme Court decision upholding the law's use to deal with climate change.  Lawmakers, some of them representing oil and coal-producing regions, have introduced bills to block further action. arguing carbono-dioxide emission regulations would hurt the economy.   

Amid tug of war in Washington over federal action, states like Maryland, meanwhile, have adopted their own laws clamping down on pollutants (Health Air Act) and are proceeding under state legislation to do the same with greenhouse gas emissions within their borders. 

Clean air, as ever, is a hot topic.  For more on the law, go here.

(Constellation Energy's Brandon Shores power plant, 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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