The National Commission on Air Quality, under orders from Congress to evaluate the Clean Air Act, yesterday called for major changes that would scrap existing deadlines for controlling air pollution.
In a thick report to the House and Senate committees planning to rewrite the act this session, the commission also recommended a less complex set of rules for new development in regions whose air is cleaner than the minimum required by the law. Commission Chairman Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) said the changes would mean "continued improvement in air quality without excessive government regulation.
But three dissenters on the 13-member commission said the changes "go beyond compromise" and, in the words of Richard Ayres of the Natural Resources Defense Council, would "eliminate basic and necessary elements of these programs rather than improve them." The National Clean Air Coalition of environmental groups and the League of Women Voters promised "a hard fight" over some of the proposed revisions.
The National Association of Manufacturers was critical of the report as well. "Some of the recommendations are in the right direction, but we find a tendency to gloss over some very real problems," said spokesman Dan Cannon. a
Commission member Tom McPherson, a Florida state legislator, said that the crossfire means "the report goes to the middle of the road," and William Lewis, staff director of the 2 1/2-year effort, acknowledged that the report was the result of an attempt to avoid a protracted, bloody battle such as the one over the 1979 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.
"This would provide both sides with certainty: that industry can locate its new plants and that the air will improve," Lewis said in an interview.
Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, which will oversees the rewriting of the act, was a commission member, but he said he abstained from voting on the final report to guarantee an impartial hearing. He called the $5.2 million study "the opening bell" in the debate.
There is something in the report for all sides to dislike. Among its recommendations:
An end to the progressively tougher 1982 and 1987 deadlines for states to comply with national air quality standards on grounds that continual extensions of the deadlines since 1975 have had the effect of preventing action. Instead, the report recommends an Environmental Protection Agency review of state progress toward the goals every three years.
EPA's former air quality director, David Hawkins, now speaking for the National Clean Air Coalition, argued that this "would legitimize the perpetual failure of certain areas."
Elimination of a "pollution increment allowance" system that was designed to prevent significant deterioration of air quality in areas that meet; clean air requirements. The report said the system was vastly complex and the system was vastly complex and time-consuming. Instead, strict limits would remain only for pristine Class One areas, such as national parks and wilderness, while development could occur in the slightly dirtier Class Two and Three areas if the best available pollution control technology were used.
Ayers said the "appropriate remedy for these undue complexities is simplification, not scrapping the program."
An increase in permissible carbon monoxide emissions for cars from 3.4 grams per mile to 7 grams, on grounds that machinery to achieve the lower limit coughs out so much dirt when it fails that the net effect would be set in high-altitude areas.
"Significant reductions" in emissions of sulfur dioxide in the East in an effort to control acid rain in the Northeast. "This is a new, serious and growing problem," said Hart. "What comes down is worse than what went up." The study said average annual sulfur dioxide levels rose 20 percent between 1973 and 1978.
Industry spokesmen had argued that much more study was needed before acid rain could be linked to their smokestacks, and they can be expected to resist this proposal.
The report recommended no change in the formulas used to set health standards, which take into account people highly susceptible to breathing difficulties and do not include estimates of the cost of meeting the standard. The Business Roundtable had sought to base standards only on levels that cause "debilitating health effects." Further efforts to include cost-benefit analysis in the setting of standards may be expected during the debate.
The report also recommended speeding up efforts to control such hazardous air pollutants as organic compounds and pesticide residues, further research on the effects of carbon dioxide buildup in the air from the burning of fossil fuels and increased emphasis on enforcing existing laws.
Hart said the study emphasized that as a whole, the Clean Air Act "so far has not been a major factor in inhibiting energy development," and that all projected western development can proceed under the act as it stands. At the same time, he added, the act "has worked well to protect public health. Without it, the air would be much worse than it was 10 years ago."