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Murky outlook for Clean Air Act

Just as a Republican administration prepares to take over with promises to "get the government off our backs," top business leaders concerned about environmental constraints are spelling out exactly how they would like to see this done.

The Business Roundtable, an association of 200 of the largest US corporations , has released four studies charging that the "Clean Air Act hurts industry and costs too much money." The studies, conducted by Harvard University professors and three consulting firms, call for major changes in the act, which comes up for renewal next spring.

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"We are not advocating any wholesale abandonment of the Clean Air Act," said James H. Evans, cochairman of the Roundtable and chairman of the Union Pacific Corporation, in releasing the studies here. But he predicted that the Reagan administration would cut back regulations to allow for faster development of domestic energy resources such as coal.

The studies are the first major concerted effort by business to combat the clean air laws, which Congress passed in 1970 and tightened up for factories and industry in 1977. Justin Dart, head of Dart Industries and close associate of President-elect Ronald Reagan, is a member of the Roundtable.

Among the findings in the studies:

* Air quality standards are too stringent and are based on "nonscientific data" about health, conclude Benjamin G. Ferris and Frank E. Speizer of the Harvard School of Public Health. They recommend setting new standards based only on pollution that is found to cause permanent or incapacitating illness.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the Clean Air Act, now sets standards according to "detectable effects" of pollution, including minor or temporary effects.

* It takes a company up to three years to obtain an EPA permit to build a major new plant.The consulting firm of Environmental research & Technology Inc. calls for streamlining the procedure to six weeks to cut costs and reduce uncertainty.

* Clean Air Act limits on "new" pollution that can be introduced to a region will soon block all industrial development in parts of the country. Ronald S. Jonash of Arthur D. Little Inc. found that in Oregon one plant switched to coal use and in doing so consumed almost all of the allowed increase in pollutant discharges for its area. Construction of one new plant has since been allowed in the area, but now the pollution allowance is used up, he said.

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The Arthur D. Little study calls for dropping the pollution limit for all but the most protected lands, such as national parks. Instead, it proposes to require companies to meet standards based o the best possible antipollution devices on the market.

* The Clean Air Act standards are costing the country $16.6 billion a year to enforce, and the benefits are measured at only $8.5 billion, charges Lewis J. Perl of National Research Associates. He says that the government could streamline its regulations, reduce costs and still reap the same benefits.

Mr. Evans said that the Business Roundtable will send the findings to Congress, which begins reviewing the Clean Air Act next March.

Meanwhile, the EPA is making its own informal study of the act. "We do think changes need to be made," says Barbara Bankoff, cochairman of the assessment effort. She says that her group will probably recommend simplifying some procedures and snipping some of the red tape.

However, conservationist Richard Ayres, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), feels that the new Republican administration will not be able to weaken antipollution standards greatly. "They are limited by what the public wants," he says.

"I don't see any signs of great changes in public values," notes Mr. Ayres, pointing to the criticism that met candidate Reagan when he commented that the problem of air pollution had been solved.

Ayres said the National Commission on Air Quality, with representatives from industry and enviromental group, is conducting its own study and is expected to issue a report in March.

He added that the 13-member panel, chaired by US Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, probably will ask Congress for more controls, especially in the areas of "acid rain" and toxic chemicals.

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