EPA's New Air Quality Standards Lack Scientific Basis

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

Particle and ozone standards will damage the economy without significantly helping the environment

Nobody knows better than industrial construction workers how damaging airborne particles and chemicals can be to the human body. Hardly a Boilermaker working today hasn't lost a friend or family member to asbestosis, silicosis, or some other work-related lung disease. That's why Boilermakers and other union workers strongly supported the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. We want clean air, for ourselves and for all future generations.

And the 1990 Clean Air Act has been enormously successful. Ozone levels dropped six percent from 1986 to 1995. Particle concentrations dropped 22 percent. Other pollutants are also down, even though 162 areas of the country, containing roughly half our population, have still not attained the 1990 standards.

Yet while half the country is still struggling to meet the 1990 standards, the EPA has moved to make ozone and airborne particle standards even stricter. So strict, in fact, that former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus has called them "an impossible standard of perfection." So strict that many U.S. electrical power plant, pulp mills, cement kilns, chemical plants, smelters, and manufacturing plants are expected to close down rather than try to meet them. Thousands of American workers could lose their jobs. So strict that many of the scientists on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) cannot support them.

The benefit to be gained from these high standards is not clear. The new standard regulates particles as small as 2.5 micrometers in diameter, about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. Very little research has been conducted on the health effects of particles that small. In fact, very few parts of the country have equipment that can measure the amount of these particles in the air. The consensus among scientists on CASAC was that more research is needed.

In addition, the processes regulated by the EPA - fuel combustion, industrial, and transportation - account for only six percent of all particulate emission sources. High pollen counts, dust, and seasonal wildfires - none of which can be controlled through anti-pollution devices - can and will drive areas into nonattainment under the new standards. Once an area is in nonattainment, expansion and modernization of power plants and factories will be curtailed, funding for new facilities will be stalled, and installation of clean air equipment may be halted and reassessed under the new standards. You can expect businesses negatively impacted by this arbitrary standard to pack up and move to Mexico, Asia, and other places where environmental standards are much lower. When factories in Mexico pollute the air, that pollution gets blown right across the border into the U.S. Texas is already experiencing this problem.

The EPA's new ozone standard is even worse than its particle standard. It requires communities to remove virtually all traces of ozone from the air. This goal can be attained, but only at great cost, and the benefits are small. Excessive ozone causes short-term symptoms - wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath - which can be relieved by moving indoors and avoiding strenuous exercise. They do not warrant the expense the new standards will incur.

A study commissioned by the Office of Technology Assessment reported that reducing ozone levels costs American consumers and taxpayers between $3.30 and $5.10 for each $1.00 of health benefits. It would be cheaper just to pay for the medical care. Ironically, setting these higher standards will actually slow down progress in some areas. The new standards postpone the attainment deadlines for areas currently not attaining the 1990 standards. For example, under the previous standards, Washington, D.C., which is in nonattainment for ozone, must reach attainment by 1998. The new standards will allow them until 2008 to comply.

We cannot support the new EPA standards. Faced with the prospect of massive job losses and questionable health benefits, we must oppose EPA's new standards and ask them to conduct more research. House bill H.R. 1984 calls for a four year moratorium on the implementation of the EPA's new air quality standards and requires the EPA to perform studies to confirm the necessity of the standards. All Boilermaker members should contact their Representatives and tell them we support H.R. 1984.

We can't let the EPA's good intentions place an unnecessary burden on the industries that employ our members. We want clean air, but we can't allow American industry to be destroyed by an impossible standard of perfection. We need workable air quality standards, not an impossible dream.