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Cleaner Air for Today, and Tomorrow

Release Date: 06/14/2001
Contact Information: Amy Miller, EPA Press Office (617-918-1042)

By Ira Leighton

This year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency celebrated a great victory for clean air. The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision upholding the agency's tougher clean air standards for smog and soot, pollutants that continue to impact millions throughout New England each year, many of them children who suffer from asthma.

In a 9 to 0 decision this winter, the Supreme Court recognized the great gains made by the EPA's clean air laws and thus gave the agency the green light to continue working with citizens, industry, cities, states and federal agencies to tackle the soot and smog challenges that lie ahead.

This important victory for clean air was among several actions taken in the last year and over the last decade to protect the public's health. Among our recent actions are new emission rules both for heavy duty diesel trucks and light-duty trucks (including ever-popular sport utility vehicles) that will slash smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 90 percent. New England states have also done their part by adopting aggressive regulations for power plant and motor vehicle emissions.

EPA began cleaning our nation's air in 1970 with the passage of the Clean Air Act. At that time, cars and trucks belched noxious pollutants from their tail pipes, and factories and power plants emitted high levels of soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxic discharges.

Since then, EPA has worked with states, industry and environmental groups to reduce ozone smog pollution through cleaner cars, cleaner fuels, and more stringent controls on industrial pollution. Today's cars are 90 percent cleaner than in 1970 and total emissions for carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, lead and particulate matter are down significantly.

Unfortunately, New Englanders still breathe unhealthy air too many days each summer. In 2000, a relatively cool summer in New England, sampling stations in the region recorded unhealthy smog pollution on 20 days. Although Connecticut suffers the most severe air pollution problems, most regions of New England experience days each summer when air quality is unhealthy. Smog aggravates asthma, increasing asthma attacks, use of medication, medical treatment and the number of visits to hospital emergency rooms. Ten to 20 percent of summertime respiratory-related hospital visits in the Northeast are associated with smog pollution.

To meet the standards upheld by the Supreme Court, we need creative strategies to ensure that public health protections will be achieved in cost-effective ways. EPA has a number of major initiatives underway, including:

Cleaner Cars and Trucks: In December 1999, EPA issued new tail pipe emission standards that will for the first time subject both cars and light-duty trucks to the same pollution emission standards. Beginning in 2004, the new standard will further reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 77 percent for cars and 92 percent for trucks and sport utility vehicles. Earlier this year, EPA issued new rules for heavy duty diesel trucks that will reduce particulate matter by 90 percent and nitrogen oxides by 95 percent beginning in 2007.

Cleaner Fuels: Sulfur in gasoline impedes the effectiveness of catalytic converters, the equipment that reduces pollution from car tail pipes. In conjunction with the new tail pipe standards, EPA issued new rules requiring a 90 percent reduction in average sulfur levels in gasoline, beginning in 2004. Similarly, sulfur in diesel fuel reduces the effectiveness of the advanced pollution controls that will be put on big diesel vehicles, and for that reason, sulfur in diesel fuel will be reduced by 97 percent beginning in mid-2006.

Tougher Vehicle Inspection Program: Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have put new vehicle inspection programs in place to make sure cars are performing as efficiently and cleanly as possible.

To achieve clean air in New England, we also need to tackle serious pollution problems outside the region. Nitrogen oxides and fine particles from the Midwest and other areas are often carried hundreds of miles, contributing to pollution problems in New England. To address that, EPA is requiring 21 Eastern States and the District of Columbia to reduce nitrogen oxides. This strategy has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

Despite the significant work being done to reduce air pollution, New Englanders still suffer from days with unhealthy ozone levels. When poor air quality is predicted, EPA and the medical community suggest residents avoid strenuous outdoor activities. Children and people with respiratory disease are especially vulnerable to breathing and respiratory problems when ozone concentrations are elevated above safe levels.

New Englanders have a right to clean air and a right to know when air quality is poor. EPA will continue to build on its program to inform the public of air quality conditions. Air quality conditions and air quality predictions are available on EPA's Web site information page at New Englanders can also sign up for a free smog alert service at this web site or by calling 1-800-821-1237. This service sends participants an email or fax when unhealthy air is predicted for their area.

Ira Leighton is acting regional administrator of EPA's New England Office