The Past: Deadly Smog
On October 27, 1948, a deadly smog descended on Donora, Pennsylvania.
An inversion layer, where cold air is trapped below a layer of warmer air, had created an invisible lid over Donora’s narrow valley, sealing in the noxious combination of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and metal dust emitted by the town’s local steel and zinc plants. For 5 days, an impenetrable yellow haze blanketed Donora, darkening the sky and poisoning its residents.
Only after a rainy, low pressure system moved into the valley did the inversion layer reverse, allowing the lethal smog to dissipate. By then, 20 were left dead and hundreds more were sick and hospitalized for respiratory and cardiac complications.
Like so many Americans, the residents of Donora had come to accept the tainted fumes of local industry as the unavoidable price of progress. After all, about half of the town’s population were employed by the U.S. Steel Corp operating the industrial plants.
Cities across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, were cloaked in suffocating smog as garbage incinerators, coal-fired power plants, and other industrial operations spewed the toxic byproducts of their “progress” into the air, unabated.
That is, until 20 people died in Donora.
The disaster raised new awareness of the dangers associated with industrial air pollution and sparked interest in a new avenue of public health research.
Congress began passing federal legislation to address air pollution starting in 1955 with the Air Pollution Control Act. However, this and subsequent legislation failed to establish comprehensive regulations limiting emissions and smog maintained its deadly hold on American cities.
Earth Day and the Present: The EPA Takes its First Breath
Finally, with the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental movement had enough political clout to demand measurable air quality improvement. Under increasing public pressure, the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the nation’s deteriorating environmental health.
Congress wasted no time bestowing the fledgling EPA with its first set of marching orders. Less than 30 days after the EPA took its first breath, Congress passes the Clean Air Act of 1970, authorizing the EPA to set national air quality, auto emission, and anti-pollution standards.
According to Paul G. Rogers, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment during the 1970 Clean Air Act deliberations, the Clean Air Act was a, “deliberate response aimed at correcting the demonstrated failures of previous regulatory efforts.”
Although the Clean Air Act fell short in some regards (and has since been amended both in 1977 and in 1990), Rogers reflected on the 1970’s statute as, “a major and positive turning point in the national environmental protection effort.”
For the first time, national attitudes shifted. Progress did not oblige pollution. In Rogers words: “A consensus has emerged from the experiences gleaned under the 1970 amendments that environmental protection and economic growth can, and must, be accomplished hand-in-hand.”
Take a deep breath and you’ll find that the Clean Air Act has done more for us than re-frame America’s narrative on air pollution.
Our Future: One Step Forward
The Clean Air Act boasts an impressive highlight reel of air quality achievements.
- Ground level ozone, a dangerous component of smog, has dropped by more than 25%.
- Lead content in gasoline has been reduced, cutting lead-air pollution by 92%.
- The combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) has dropped by 74%.
- The production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals has been phased out.
- Air toxins emitted by large industrial sources has declined by almost 70%.
All of this during yet another chapter of growth for the United States during which the country’s GDP tripled, energy consumption increased by 50%, and vehicle use nearly doubled.
Unfortunately, the future of clean air, like so many environmental battles in the modern political arena, is a story best described as “one step forward, two steps back.”
Following a Supreme Court ruling in 2007, the Clean Air Act’s purview of responsibilities were broadened ever further to combat the growing threat of climate change. Climate change poses a significant, far-reaching risk to the environment and public health of people today and generations to come.
Compelled by both the Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent Endangerment Finding review, the Obama administration’s EPA proposed and promulgated the Clean Power Plan rule, which focused on reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the nation’s largest source of these greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trump administration wasted no time temporarily suspending the Clean Power Plan and replacing it with the more lenient Affordable Clean Energy rule, which grants more flexibility to power plants operating on fossil fuels and sets no numerical target for greenhouse gas emissions. The efficacy of the Affordable Clean Energy rule is debated, with one study suggesting a negligible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to having no policy at all.
The road we travel now to curb carbon pollution, securing clean air and a stable climate for future generations, is fraught with legal and political challenges. It is true that as of late, our country has stumbled. But the Clean Air Act is a testament to the progress we have made before – it is time once again to take a step forward.
“…Environmental protection and economic growth can, and must, be accomplished hand-in-hand.”