Clean Air Act (1963) (Major Acts of Congress)
Excerpt from the Clean Air Act
- to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population;
- to initiate and accelerate a national research and development program to achieve the prevention and control of air pollution;
- to provide technical and financial assistance to State and local governments in connection with the development and execution of their air pollution prevention and control programs; and
- to encourage and assist the development and operation of regional air pollution prevention and control programs.
The Clean Air Act (P.L. 88-206 77, Stat. 401) established a program to help clean up dirty air and to maintain clean air. Congress extended its efforts to remedy and prevent air pollution in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, whose provisions form the basics of today's air pollution standards. Congress amended the 1963 act out of concern that, without stricter standards, the air quality in our nation's cities would never be improved to healthful levels. At the time there was also a great deal of public concern about air pollution. Senator Edmund Muskie, a prime sponsor of the 1970 amendments, stated: "Our responsibility is to establish what the public interest requires to protect the health of persons. This may mean that people and industries will be asked to do what seems to be impossible at the present time." President Richard Nixon also pushed for improvements to the Clean Air Act. In fact, the president and Senator Muskie competed to see who could offer a stricter version of the amendments. As a result, the 1970 amendments established stringent deadlines for the achievement of air quality standards, as well as deadlines for auto manufacturers to produce cars with dramatically reduced pollutants in their emissions.
FEATURES OF THE ACT
Under the act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets "national ambient air quality standards" (NAAQS). These standards limit the allowable concentrations of pollutants in the outdoor air. There are presently standards for carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur oxide. The EPA sets both primary and secondary ambient air quality standards; primary standards protect the public health with an adequate margin of safety, and secondary standards protect public welfare. Neither kind of standard can be based on cost considerations.
The act requires each state to submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) showing how it will limit emissions from sources of air pollution. The state must demonstrate that its plan will result in attainment of the primary standards by a specific deadline, and of the secondary standards "as expeditiously as possible." Generally, a state may pick any mix of emission control measures that would result in attainment and maintenance on time. Each major source of air pollution receives a permit containing the measures that apply to it. States can, in general, choose to be stricter than the Clean Air Act.
Under the act, the federal government sets emission standards for categories of new motor vehicles. Congress has sometimes set these standards itself, and has sometimes directed the EPA to set them. (California has the authority to set its own standards and other states can adopt them rather than follow the federal standards.) These standards are based on the emission levels the EPA projects can be achieved by vehicle manufacturers after a period of lead time. In addition to standards for motor vehicles, the EPA sets performance standards for categories of new and modified stationary sources of pollutants, such as new power plants. These standards are based on assessments of what is technologically feasible using the best system of emissions reduction.
Each state's plan must also include a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program to protect areas whose air quality is better than the levels of the NAAQS. A major stationary source can be constructed or modified in such an area only if the operator (a) installs the best available control technology to minimize pollutants, and (b) shows the source will not cause a violation of "increments" that limit increases in air pollution in clean air areas.
States must also impose requirements on the construction and modification of a major stationary source that would cause or contribute to a violation of the NAAQS. The new source must be subject to strict controls, and the new source's emissions must be offset by extra reductions at other sources.
Another provision of the act attempts to deal with the interstate transport of air pollution. For instance, the act requires power plants to reduce emissions of sulfates that can cause acid rain as well as reduced visibility and damage to human health. Each plant is assigned a set of allowances for sulfur dioxide. Plants that can reduce emissions at low cost can over control their emissions and sell excess allowances to plants that cannot reduce at low cost. In this way, the emission target can be met at the lowest possible cost.
Image Pop-UpClouds of pollutants surround this United Steel Corporation coke plant even though it had been previously cited for violation of the Clean Air Act. The act dates back to 1963 but the basics of today's act were established in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970. Under the act, the EPA sets "national ambient air quality standards." These standards limit the allowable concentrations of pollutants in the outdoor air. Each state must submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) showing how it will limit emissions from sources of air pollution and include a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program to protect areas whose air quality is better than the levels of the national ambient air quality standards.
The act also attempts to reduce emissions of air pollutants that may cause cancer or other life threatening diseases. The EPA sets standards that compel new and existing major sources of these pollutants to do the utmost to control their emissions. The EPA must set additional, stricter standards if a risk to public health remains.
In South Terminal v. EPA (1973), the U.S. Court of Appeals held that the constitutional basis for the act is Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce, because air pollution and some of its sources (like motor vehicles) move across state borders. Several important judicial decisions have interpreted the act:
- In Sierra Club v. Ruckelshaus (1972), the federal district court in the District of Columbia held that the EPA could not approve state plans unless those plans called for the protection of existing clean air from degradation. This led to the PSD program mentioned above.
- In Ethyl Corp. v. EPA (1976), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the EPA could regulate a substance even though it could not be proved that the substance was harmful. The court said the EPA could proceed if it could show a significant risk of harm. The ruling in this case has been incorporated in the Clean Air Act.
- In Union Electric v. EPA (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court held that states may require air pollution sources to achieve tough emission limits, even if the technology does not presently exist to achieve those limits.
- In Whitman v. American Trucking Associations (2001), the Supreme Court held that the EPA may not consider costs in setting ambient air quality standards, and that the act's command that primary standards be set to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety gives the EPA sufficient direction in setting these standards.
In 1977 Congress passed a lengthy series of amendments that extended the original deadlines for areas to attain air quality standards but at the same time required more intensive efforts to attain those standards. The amendments also extended the deadlines for auto manufacturers to produce cleaner vehicles, and established the PSD program.
Congress passed an even longer series of amendments in 1990. These amendments again extended deadlines to attain air quality standards in exchange for greater efforts to attain those standards. The amendments further established the act's current programs to combat acid rain and hazardous air pollutants, and tightened the standards for new motor vehicles.
If a source does not obey the emission limits set in an approved SIP, then the state, the federal government, or citizens can enforce the limit. If a state does not establish an SIP, or refuses to carry it out, the federal government can establish and enforce its own plan for the state.
Since 1970 there have been drastic reductions in emissions of most air pollutants. These reductions are especially remarkable considering that the nation's national economic product, as well as the number of vehicle miles traveled in the nation, have doubled since that year. Although important air quality problems remain, an increasing number of areas have come into compliance with the EPA's ambient air quality standards. The EPA estimates that the monetary benefits of controlling air pollution have greatly outweighed its costs.
See also: NATIONAL EMISSIONS STANDARDS ACT; NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT.
Doland, Edward F. Our Poisoned Sky. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1991.
Gay, Kathlyn. Air Pollution. New York: F. Watts, 1991.
Environmental Protection Association. .