Chapter 3: How Can Pollution Be Reduced?
Chapter 3 Preface
In the novel Don Quixote, the protagonist fights windmills, believing them to be giants. In modern society, windmills and wind power are considered by some people to be friend, not foe. These people believe wind power may be one way to reduce air pollution.
According to its supporters, wind is an inexpensive, plentiful, and nonpolluting source of energy. Wind power advocates contend that wind power is not much more expensive than fossil fuel-based electricity; producing electricity from natural gas costs three cents per kilowatt-hour, while wind-generated electricity costs five to seven cents per kilowatt-hour. Advocates also note that unlike fossil fuel, wind is not a finite resource. According to Tracey C. Rembert, “The contiguous U.S. has enough untapped wind energy to produce 4.4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year—more than one and a half times our total electricity generation in 1990.”
Opponents of wind power maintain that relying on wind as a key source of energy would be, in effect, a quixotic effort. For example, Robert L. Bradley Jr., president of the Institute for Energy Research, argues that wind power is expensive and impractical. He contends that wind generates electricity at low capacity due to the fact that wind does not blow twenty-four hours a day. “Because wind is an intermittent (unpredictable) generation source, it has less economic value than fuel sources that can deliver a steady, predictable...
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Stronger Air-Pollution Standards Are Needed
When Bill Clinton journeyed to the north rim of the Grand Canyon in the fall of 1996 to preside over the creation of a new national monument, he quipped to reporters that it was kind of odd that there was so much fog in Arizona at that time of year. That wasn’t fog, Mr. President, it was smog, clogging the air in one of the most remote and least populated areas in North America. The pollution shrouding the Grand Canyon had wafted from the smokestacks of coalfired power plants and refineries hundreds of miles away.
Increasingly Toxic Air
The Grand Canyon is only one of dozens of national parks where toxic compounds in the air are stunting tree growth and killing alpine flora. The situation in America’s cities is even worse. More than 400 counties now exceed federal air-pollution levels. No fewer than 185 different scientific studies support the conclusion that the nation’s air is becoming ever more toxic.
Nearly 130 million Americans are exposed every day to harmful levels of air pollution. Studies at the Harvard Medical School estimate that 60,000 Americans die prematurely every year from respiratory illnesses and heart attacks linked to air pollution. Moreover, 250,000 children a year fall victim to aggravated asthma and other respiratory disorders caused by breathing toxic air—an increase of 11 percent since 1980. Respiratory problems are now the leading cause of children’s hospital admissions, according to the...
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The Federal Government’s Air-Quality Standards Are Too Stringent
The Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, proposed changes to the nation’s air-quality standards are the most expansive and expensive environmental regulations in history. Based on inconclusive and unsubstantiated science, the rules are premature at best. If adopted, they will result in tremendous costs—up to tens of billions of dollars annually—imposed on state and local governments as well as on individuals, businesses and communities. The likely result: More states threatened with loss of federal highway funds, more businesses forced to absorb costs of expensive new technologies and more drivers facing mandatory emission-control requirements.
More Studies Are Necessary
The proposed new standards for ozone (smog) and particulate matter (small airborne particles) supposedly are based on conclusive scientific studies, but the only real consensus among scientists is that more study is needed. For 25 years, air quality steadily has been improving around the country. Yet, now we are told drastic new steps are needed to protect “public health.” In fact, the suggested marginal health benefits of the new standards are open to serious question and debate.
In addition, the arbitrary and rushed procedures by which these standards have been promulgated undermine public confidence in government and feed a growing public mistrust of all environmental laws. The appropriate course of action would be to hold off on these new...
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Electric Cars Reduce Air Pollution
I have been commuting to downtown Los Angeles since 1991 in my electric car, getting the thumbs-up from other drivers, happy that my converted Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (license plate SMOGLSS) emits not an iota of tailpipe pollution. So, I was aghast to read a report from Carnegie-Mellon University asserting that electric cars may make the environment dirtier. “If this is true,” I told my wife, “I’ll get rid of the car tomorrow.”
Cleaning Up an Environmental Mess
After all, I bought SMOGLSS only because I felt that as a Los Angeles driver I had contributed more than my lifetime share to dirtying the air. As a professor of environmental law, I thought the time had come for me to practice what I teach. I could not quite summon the virtue of my few colleagues who take the bus, or the campus priest who pedals 25 miles to work on his bicycle, but I figured that the electric car would help get me back in line with the kindergarten rule that you clean up your own messes.
I wanted to be sure, so I delved into research data. I found that my car cuts air pollution (volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide) by 97 percent compared with a gas car. I wondered if I was merely transferring the pollution from the city to the distant power plant generating the electricity. No. Only 3 percent as much is emitted at the electric plant to charge my car as is emitted from a gas car.
Cutting air pollution this...
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Electric Cars Are Costly and May Not Reduce Pollution
Should government enact laws to subsidize “alternative” fuels so that people will use less gasoline? Should government mandate the use of electric cars or other vehicles that don’t use gasoline at all?
Even without expert knowledge of the issues involved, anyone who values liberty will be inclined to answer both questions in the negative. Subsidies are a forcible transfer of wealth from those who have earned it to those who didn’t. Likewise, mandates are edicts that carry penalties for noncompliance. Use of gasoline for transportation purposes would not seem to be the sort of offense that anyone ought to be behind bars for. Both subsidies and mandates are government’s way of declaring, “We’re smarter than the market, so we’re going to have to force the market to change.” How many times have we heard that one— and later lamented the results?
As it turns out, the skeptics are right once again. Subsidies and mandates on behalf of alternative fuels are yet another public folly, motivated perhaps by good intentions but fraught with inherent contradictions. Not only do they whittle away at personal liberty, they flout economics and science as well.
Subsidies and mandates for alternative fuels are being discussed in many state legislatures now. A law passed by Congress in 1992 mandated that 75 percent of the half-million vehicles the federal government maintains be fueled by something...
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The Clean Water Act Has Improved America’s Rivers and Lakes
The Clean Water Act is an immense piece of legislation, with more than 500 sections, so summarizing it is difficult. Suffice it to say that before it was passed there were no enforceable national standards for industrial or sewage discharge into surface waters; now all such “point sources” of pollution require state- or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-issued permits. The act also established a national policy on the protection of wetlands, the crucial foundation to healthy surface-water ecosystems, which were filled in or drained at a rate of about half a million acres a year between 1950 and 1970.
Just as important as the regulations was that for two decades Congress was willing to spend public money to carry out the act’s mandate. Between 1972 and 1989 the EPA spent roughly $54 billion and the states were required to spend another $128 billion on new or upgraded municipal sewage-treatment facilities; in more recent years another $19 billion has been invested in revolving loan funds intended to provide permanent sources of funding for municipalwaste- treatment improvements.
Successes and Failures
The result, according to the EPA, is that even though the amount of treated sewage increased 30 percent between 1970 and 1985, there was a 46 percent reduction in the amount of organic waste released into surface waters. Controls established under the Clean Water Act have prevented the dumping of about 1 billion pounds a year...
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Additional Government Programs Are Not the Correct Response to Water Pollution
During the 1997 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton announced a new federal program entitled the American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI), which he intended to support communities in their efforts to restore and protect rivers across the United States. To many, this lofty goal sounds good. But, on closer inspection, the pristine image it paints becomes murky, revealing a program that violates many constitutional and statutory provisions, involves the federal government further in local and state environmental issues, is inefficient and wastes tax dollars, and threatens personal property rights. . . .
The Details of the Initiative
President Clinton unveiled new details about how he plans to implement his new American Heritage Rivers Initiative when he issued Executive Order 13061 on September 11, 1997. Through executive order, Clinton has established an American Heritage Rivers Interagency Committee to oversee implementation of the initiative. Members of the committee will include the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Transportation; the attorney general; the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; the chairpersons of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities; or designees at the assistant secretary level or their equivalent.
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The Efforts of Citizens Can Reduce Water Pollution
The good news is that our Clean Water Act, plus billions of dollars in municipal treatment plants and industrial wastewater processing, has rescued many of our streams and lakes from sewerhood.
The bad news is that, with the nastiest waste pipes cleaned up, we still insult our waterbodies with filled-in wetlands, runoff from lawns and farms, here a dam, there a dam, everywhere a little acid rain or toxic fallout. Ponds cloud up with strange weeds. Almost all the oysters are gone from Chesapeake Bay. Only one percent of the natural wetlands of Iowa remain. Warnings about contaminated local fish or shellfish are posted in 45 states.
Laws Are Not Enforced
Water quality and water creatures continue to decline not because we lack protective laws, but because the laws are tepidly enforced. A report from the Environmental Defense Fund blames “inadequate authority, funding limitations, and bureaucratic timidity.”
Within that bad news, however, there is a bit of good news. Where government fails, caring citizens are stepping in. In just a day of calling around New England, I uncovered a wealth of citizen efforts to monitor, protect, and restore local lakes and rivers. They’re scattered, they’re vastly underfunded, but they demonstrate how public and private efforts could join to clean up our water.
Watershed Watch at the University of Rhode Island, for example, keeps 250 volunteers busy at 90 locations...
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Natural Remedies Can Be Used to Clean Up Toxic Waste
As the twentieth century draws to a close, the United States can look back on its scientific and technological achievements with pride. Especially during the past 100 years, this country has been leading the world in both industrial and military strengths, and the end seems nowhere in sight.
Technology Has Hurt the Environment
But these accomplishments have come with a price. One dimension that has suffered seriously is the environment. The American landscape is pockmarked with sites polluted by factories and power plants, mines and weapons labs. Many toxic chemicals and radioactive wastes linger on, bearing silent witness to the cavalier attitude with which we have treated our environment.
At government sites, the contamination remains in huge pits or inadequately lined underground tanks. At numerous shipyards and factory sites, it’s littered throughout. At trash incinerators, the refuse of our consumer culture lies converted into piles of toxic ash. And America is not alone—the drive toward industrial and military development has left its marks around the world.
Recognizing the magnitude of the problem, the United States has set about to search for solutions. Since the early 1970s, much public scrutiny, a sea of regulations, and serious research have been brought to bear to make amends for our history of environmental neglect. Today, dozens of rules and regulations apply to different types of wastes, depending on...
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