The Reagan administration called yesterday for a significant loosening of the antipollution standards of the controversial Clean Air Act, insisting that the nationwide movement toward cleaner air will continue but "at a more reasoned pace."
Environmental Protection Agency Administration Anne M. Gorsuch listed nine general and substantive points she said the administration wants in the pending rewrite of the 1970 act, points she said President Reagan had endorsed at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. They include elimination of two-thirds of the program to prevent deterioration of air that is cleaner than national standards require, a rollback of emission standards for new automobiles and lifting of some deadlines for achieving clean air.
The nine points, which Gorsuch called a "framework for continuing work with Congress," appeared to signal abandonment for the time being of what had been a bogged-down White House effort to write a comprehensive bill. In going for general principles, the administration may have freed itself from having to defend the complex details of a cumbersome piece of legislation on a highly politicized issue.
Environmentalists called the principles "a blueprint for destruction of the Clean Air Act". Business groups voiced approval, and congressional reaction was mixed. Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee that is handling the issue, called the shift to general points "another shrewd political move" by the administration, adding that the points Gorsuch made, "with a couple of exceptions, [are] pretty hard to criticize."
The proposals included some apparent concessions to the environmentalists: pollution standards will continue to be written at the federal level rather than by the states, as some industrial groups had asked. Health standards will continue to be written without any cost-benefit analysis and will still include a margin of safety for sensitive persons such as asthmatics. The program to control toxic air pollutants will be expanded.
But a research program on acid rain, which kills fish in the Northwest and Canada, will be accelerated, indicating that the administration agrees with industry's view that not enough is known about acid rain to take action against the pollution that appears to be causing it. Environmentalists and the Canadians had asked for much stronger action to limit sulfur dioxide from power plants and nitrogen oxide emissions from automobiles.
"The guidelines are a step back from the brink of destroying our clean air laws, but not much more than that," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the health and the environment subcommittee that will hold hearings on the Clean Air Act rewrite in September.
At a morning news conference, Gorsuch said that under the program, "the nation's air will continue to improve." When asked if it would improve more slowly, she replied: "At a more reasoned pace, yes."
She said the Cabinet had decided it was unnecessary at this time to offer a detailed bill, and that specific proposals would be worked out with Congress over the next few weeks. But sources in Congress and the National Clean Air Coalition said that very detailed draft language for most of the provisions is already written.
The proposals were defended by the Business Round Table as "a strong basis for further air quality cleanup consistent with other important national goals."
The principles were as follows:
So-called primary standards, which limit pollution to levels that are not harmful to human health, should continue to include margins of safety for asthmatics, infants and the elderly. Cost-benefit analysis should not be used, but standards should be "based on sound scientific data demonstrating where air quality represents real health risks," Gorsuch said. Environmentalists predicted a battle over the definition of "real health risks."
Secondary standards, which try to protect the environment, visibility and other values not related to health, should continue to be set by the federal government and not by the states. This should prove noncontroversial.
Parks and wilderness areas should remain protected by the program set up to prevent significant deterioration of clean air areas, but industries should be allowed to operate and bring pollution into other areas whose air is cleaner than required as long as they don't push it above national ceilings. A hodgepodge of technological requirements for various situations should be made uniform. Major battles are expected over this.
State compliance rules should be simplified and federal enforcement eased. Gorsuch said she personally opposes the current practice in which EPA may cut off a state's highway and sewer construction funding if the state fails to meet its obligations.
Automobile emissions standards for 1982 models should be rolled back to 1977 levels for nitrogen oxides, twice the current limits, and for carbon monoxide, even though most new cars are already meeting the toughter standards. Gorsuch said this would save $100 per new car next year, or $1 billion a year. Major opposition is certain.
Deadlines for compliance with the law should be extended for some areas like Los Angeles to 1987 "to reflect realities," Gorsuch said.
Requirements tha new coal plants achieve a particular percentage reduction in pollution from their smoke, which would favor high-sulfur Eastern coal, should yield to uniform standards for emissions from all stacks. This is highly controversial.
Research on acid rain should increase.
The toxic air pollutant program should be expanded.