When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, polluters said the cost of compliance would be devastating. Yet 42 years later the nation has reaped both health and economic benefits from the act and from the improvements made to it in 1990.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the landmark law's first 20 years prevented 205,000 premature deaths, 672,000 cases of bronchitis, 21,000 cases of heart disease and 18 million child respiratory illnesses. Since 1990, lead in the air has dropped by 92 percent and toxic emissions from industry have been cut by 1.7 million tons a year -- while the gross domestic product grew by 64 percent.
The nation still burns coal for electricity, and factory smokestacks still dot the horizon. In other words, industry adjusted to the Clean Air Act, just as it will adjust to Allegheny County's first revision of air pollution guidelines in 24 years.
Yet some businesses have objected to the updated county code that was produced after two years of discussion and compromise by the 22-member Air Toxics Guidelines Task Force. In June the panel of industry, environment and regulatory representatives unanimously recommended that the code be adopted by the board of health.
By the time the public comment period ended Aug. 13, the county had received 226 written responses on the proposal. More than 200 favored the revision, while 13 from companies and business groups called for rejection or delay. Also, last month the county's Air Quality Citizens Advisory Committee, five of whose seven members are industry attorneys and representatives, voted 5-1 with one abstention against the code.
None of that should stop the board of health from approving the plan at its Sept. 19 meeting.
The update of the 1988 emissions code is necessary because it has no exposure limits and doesn't account for modern-day chemical emissions and their effects. In fact, industry should appreciate that the revision does not apply to existing pollution sources, but only new or significantly altered sites.
Plenty of time has been spent weighing the input of plenty of stakeholders. It's a sign of the plan's moderation that some environmentalists believe it falls short while some corporations say it goes too far. This is a plan the county can live with and breathe with.