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Clean Air Act Nears Finish Line

NOW that the dust has settled from the 20th anniversary celebrations of Earth Day, the American public has its first unclouded view of the strength of Congress's commitment to clearing the air. That opportunity arrived last Wednesday, when the full House acted on critical amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act. Following the Senate's failure to pass legislation that provided adequate protection for public health, the House stood poised to vote on key measures to further control air toxics, smog, and ozone-depleting chemicals. But the Clean Air Act once again came bumper-to-bumper with powerful lobbies - particularly the oil and auto industries - which brought a carload of PAC contributions and a fleet of lobbyists to Capitol Hill for the House debate.

Few were surprised when the oil and auto industries mounted one of the most intensive lobbying campaigns in recent memory to weaken federal air legislation. The Big Three automakers have consistently been among the top 10 PAC donors with an interest in clean-air legislation. They were led by the National Auto Dealers Association, which topped the list at more than $3,547,000 in PAC contributions to members of Congress. Yet their unprecedented spending spree on advertising to defeat a clean-fuels and clean-cars amendment for the nation's nine smoggiest cities surprised even lawmakers.

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The fuels fight also threw into bold relief the inconsistencies of the Bush administration on clean air. After calling an alternative-fuels program the centerpiece of his clean-air bill, the president declined to defend it in either the House or the Senate. Further, the president has issued veto threats over measures great and small during the legislative process, prompting many to question his fair-weather attachment to clean air and the sincerity of his environmental presidency.

In an 11th-hour drama, Democratic leaders agreed to scrap the mandate for clean-fueled passenger cars in exchange for a pilot program in California, while requiring clean urban buses and fleet vehicles in the 27 smoggiest cities. Although clean-car technology is readily available, and recent polling has consistently shown Americans' willingness to pay for cleaner cars, automakers once again resisted innovation - and declined to compete with German and Japanese automakers, who may once again leave Detroit in the dust.

In a series of agreements on air toxics, visibility in national parks, and coastal-pollution protection, the House improved significantly on the committee bill - and both House and Senate stepped up to the challenge in tackling a new atmospheric crisis. The global use of CFCs and related chemicals, nearly one-third of which are manufactured in the US, has damaged the Earth's protective envelope of stratospheric ozone. By agreeing to a production phaseout of CFCs by the year 2000, and of HCFCs in the first decades of the next century, Congress has demonstrated its ability to act in the face of administration's indifference when science and public opinion are firmly on its side.

As the conference committee meets to make a final match between the two bills, it is important to keep in mind the original goals of the Clean Air Act. Its intent is to protect both environmental resources and the public health, and to respond to burgeoning sources and new types of pollution. The final bill must not weaken existing law - as several Senate provisions would do. In addition, weaker Senate provisions for control of stationary sources of pollution in the nation's smoggiest cities, as well as its weaker alternative-fuels program, should be scrapped in favor of the tougher House bill.

Conferees face the difficult task of selecting the strongest sections of the House and Senate bills, in the face of opposition from the affected industries and President Bush. The final bill must include the quickest phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals, with an assurance that safe alternatives will be used when possible; the greatest reductions in acid-rain causing emissions; and the toughest enforcement sections to ensure that the new Clean Air Act is a working document. Finally, rigorous standards for requiring a nationwide second round of auto-emissions controls in the 21st century need to be agreed upon before the legislation is finalized.

It seems appropriate to remember, as Congress nears the finish line on the Clean Air Act, that the act of 1970 was both the offspring of the first Earth Day celebration and a landmark in establishing the US as leader in environmental policy. Congress should mark the anniversary of Earth Day with an achievement that will clear the air - and will stand until the 21st century as a visible symbol of this generation's commitment to environmental quality.

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