4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
Giving an order doesnt necessarily make something happen. This is the lesson of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the nation to set and meet air quality standards. Revised in 1977 and 1990, this law guided the process that eliminated lead from gasoline, cut automotive emissions of carbon monoxide and other pollutants, and cleaned up the nations smokestacks. But what it really did was set the rules for a battle that is now entering its fourth decade. One of the reasons this battle has been so slow is that it often involves automobiles, and Americans are loath to give up their cars.
The Clean Air Act set general standards. It was filled in by a series of state and federal laws and amendments. But its provisions were often not enforced until someone insisted on it. In 1973, a Clean Air Plan was drafted for New York City. The Plan sat on a shelf until 1975, when lawyers Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod filed suit on behalf of several environmental groups to enforce it. The legal fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided in favor of the plaintiffs. The compromise plan established bus lanes and strengthened the enforcement of traffic and parking laws. Since the plan was put in place, carbon monoxide levels on New York streets have declined.
The list of clean air laws is exceptionally long. Here are a few highlights: in 1971, a state law established emission standards for industrial plants. In 1972, eight significant pollutants were added to the list of chemicals used to measure air quality standards. In 1976, the DEC controlled the use of aerosol cans containing chloroflurocarbons (CFCs), which had been shown to damage the planets ozone layer. In 1983, cowls were added to gasoline pumps in New York City to keep vapor from escaping into the air. In 1985, municipal solid waste incinerators were regulated. In 1986, the state inherited a long list of duties previously reserved by Washington.
New Yorks air is measurably cleaner because of these laws. But it isnt clean enough. This was brought home in 1988, when hot summer weather contributed to heavy atmospheric ozone and unhealthy breathing conditions in several New York cities. So the legal beat went on. In 1990, New York adopted Californias automobile emission standards, by far the strictest in the nation, for all cars sold in the state. Also in 1990, further amendments to the Clean Air Act required major polluters to get permits before they could release chemicals into the air. These were combined with several "market-based" provisions, including "pollution allowances" that can be bought and sold and credits to industries that meet certain standards.
Despite these efforts, one of the states most serious air pollution problems seems to be getting worse. Acid rain, which is caused by fine particles from Midwestern smokestacks wafting northward, is having a major negative impact statewide, killing plant, fish, and animals. Acid rains component chemicals were controlled within New York by a 1984 law. But the problem lies in Ohio, Michigan, and other states where environmental traditions are not as strong as they are in New York. For decades, the state has been unable to force its neighbors to stop. According to Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, an estimated one-fifth of lakes in the Adirondacks are too acidic to support life.
Another reason for the lack of progress in stopping acid rain is the complexity of the issue, which has provided many points at which scientific questions could be disputed. Beginning in 1978, power companies, smelters, and other acid rain generators adopted the strategy of continually calling for more scientific research. Once scientific research reached a consensus that acid rain was harmful and should be controlled, the industries switched to a public-relations campaign against the scientists.
In 1999, Attorney General Spitzer filed suit against 17 older coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, claiming that they had made major modifications without obtaining the necessary permits. In May 2000, he also gave notice to file suit against seven coal-fired plants in New York.