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Home arrow Health arrow Best practices for environmental health : environmental pollution, protection, quality and sustainability


(See endnotes 34, 35, 36, 37)

What follows is an extensive discussion of the Clean Air Act and the various amendments, etc. There is also guidance for the readers wishing to expand their knowledge as needed in any special area of this law. The reason for this discussion is because the Clean Air Act in the United States is almost like the US Constitution. All the standards, rules and regulations enhanced by current science are based on the Clean Air Act and Its Amendments. The standards, rules and regulations are a living, evolving approach to the resolution of air pollution problems.

Since air pollution is a national and international problem as well as a state and local problem, the federal government passed laws and/or amendments in 1955, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1977, and 1990 to reduce air pollution and improve air quality to protect human health and the environment (welfare). The 1955 legislation, entitled the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, emphasized that air pollution was a national problem and had to be dealt with on a national level. It stated that research and additional work was needed to improve the situation. The Clean Air Act of 1963 set emission standards for stationary sources such as power plants and steel mills. It did not recognize the problems of mobile sources. The amendments of 1965-1969 gave the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare the power to set standards for automobile emissions, expand local air pollution control programs, establish air quality control regions, and set air quality standards and compliance deadlines for stationary sources.

In 1970, Congress approved the enhanced Clean Air Act, expanding previous powers and programs and giving the authority and the program operation to the US EPA to administer and where necessary enforce scientifically established rules, regulations, standards, and pollution limits. It required the US EPA to establish NAAQS using the latest scientific information. It required the various states to develop and adopt enforceable plans to achieve the standards. It required states to clean up dirty air, protect the degradation of clean air, and prevent air pollution drift to other states and other areas. It required the EPA to review and approve the state plans. (It gave the states ample time to establish the state planning process program for the non-attainment areas.) New stationary sources had to be built with the latest technology to prevent and control air pollution. Appropriate permits had to be secured before construction of new industrial plants and also for the release of pollutants from older industrial plants.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 also provided authority for reducing:

  • • Hazardous air pollutants that created a health risk or endangered the environment
  • • Acid rain or acid deposition that damaged various ecosystems and could harm the health of people
  • • Chemicals that enter the air and deplete the stratospheric ozone layer
  • • Haze that impairs visibility
  • • Pollutants, such as greenhouse gases, that can cause climate change

The EPA determines scientifically if various areas of the country meet or miss the existing NAAQS. (The standards may change over time based on the latest scientific knowledge.) Those areas that meet the standards are called “attainment areas” and those that do not are called “non-attainment areas.” An area can be an attainment area for one pollutant but not for one or more other pollutants.

The EPA’s New Source Review program requires that a construction permit be obtained by a company that is going to either build a new plant or modify an existing plant so that air pollution emissions will not increase by a substantial amount. The EPA has established three different types of technology which can be utilized for these plants:

Reasonably Available Control Technology—This is required if the plan is in a nonattainment area. It is a control technology that is reasonably available, technologically feasible, and economically feasible.

  • Best Available Control Technology—This is required in major new or modified plants in attainment areas and limits emissions to the maximum degree of control that can be achieved. Control can be achieved through add-on equipment or process modification.
  • Lowest Achievable Emission Rate—This is required in major new or modified plants in non-attainment areas and is the most stringent emission limits established in a State Implementation Plan or achieved in actual practice by a given source. (See endnote 64.)

In subsequent years, and with better scientific information and better technology available, the Clean Air Act was amended and expanded to continue to improve air quality in the United States. The EPA was required to set standards which could be met by the best available technology and that would reduce the risk of disease and deterioration of the environment. One of the programs added was the Prevention of Significant Deterioration Program where attainment areas would not be allowed to slip back to a non-attainment area. National standards or guidelines were set up for consumer and commercial products such as solvents, paints, and coatings which made up 80% of the VOCs that were involved in ozone forming at the Earth’s surface. National standards were set for new vehicles (mobile sources), engines, and fuels. There was a usage drop in the amount of lead available in the atmosphere because of required reductions in the lead content of leaded gasoline and ultimately the sale of unleaded gasoline. The sulfur content of fuel was reduced substantially and lower volatility fuel had to be sold in the summer in areas where there were high levels of ozone pollution. Oxygenated gasoline had to be used in areas where there was substantial carbon monoxide pollution.

The EPA was also given the authority to regulate the emissions from any oil drilling and production and the associated vessels off the coast of the United States. Emission controls, use of permits, monitoring, testing, and issuing reports became required.

The Clean Air Act regulated hazardous air pollutants on a pollutant-by-pollutant basis based on risk. By 1990, Congress had listed close to 190 hazardous air pollutants but gave the EPA the authority to modify the list and issue “maximum achievable control technology” emission standards by categories, where the standards must reach the level of performance of the average of the top performing 12% of these sources. This allows industry the flexibility to decide the most cost- effective way to comply. The EPA was required to regulate the hazardous air pollutant emissions from electric utilities.

The US EPA has developed National Emission Standards for the sources being discussed in this chapter. Most of these standards have been updated very recently. Many of the Best Practices are a response to the standard.

The Clean Air Act required a national urban air toxics strategy for hazardous air pollutants including regulation of small area sources. The EPA was required to list and regulate enough of these sources to ensure that 90% of the emissions of the 30 pollutants causing the greatest threat to public health in the largest number of urban areas would be controlled. This would help reduce the health risks from mobile sources of air pollution.

The EPA had to issue new performance standards to control hazardous air pollutant emissions from solid waste incinerators and guidelines to satisfy the standards.

For mobile sources, toxic emissions had to be reduced based on the standards. These emissions included formaldehyde and benzene.

Provisions were established in law for the prevention of accidental releases of extremely hazardous air pollutants. The EPA is required to issue regulations for the prevention and detection of accidental releases from stationary sources. Risk management plans are required for these facilities and an independent investigative board was created to determine cause and effect.

A regional haze prevention program was established to protect visibility in park areas. The national goal was to prevent any future haze problems and correct existing visibility problems due to air pollution created by people.

The Clean Air Act insisted on reduction of the potential for producing acid deposition. Controls were established for the substantial reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions, mostly from power plants, on a market-based emissions trading approach. Companies had the flexibility to reduce their emissions to minimize their cost of compliance. Under the trading system, the EPA issued emissions allowances, with each allowance good for 1 ton of sulfur dioxide released to the air. At the end of each year, the company had to hold enough allowances to cover their annual emissions. If the company could not achieve this goal, it could purchase allowances from other companies which had gone past their goal. The means of reduction of the sulfur dioxide emissions was left to the company.

For control of nitrogen oxides from power plants, they were required to install low nitrogen oxide burners. Compliance was based on the average emissions of all their units.

The Clean Air Act protects the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and release of chemicals that can cause ozone layer problems. The provisions of the Clean Air Act implement the Montreal Protocol, which is an international agreement for protecting the ozone layer. Chlorofluorocarbons have already been phased out and now the EPA is phasing out hydro- chlorofluorocarbons, which were a temporary substitute for the chlorofluorocarbons. Allowances can be traded between companies. The EPA can issue regulations if any substance or activity can affect the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

Emissions of greenhouse gases that can cause or contribute to climate change are also regulated. There are now greenhouse gas regulations for vehicles and stationary sources. Carbon pollution standards are now being established for new power plants. A renewable fuel standards program has been established for gasoline and diesel fuel.

All major pollutant sources as well as others have to acquire operating permits to make sure they comply with the Clean Air Act requirements. The permits are usually issued by state and local agencies under EPA approval. The permit is issued for a period of time of up to 5 years and has to contain enforceable emission standards and limitations.

The Clean Air Act provides for enforcement through administrative or judicial methods of all rules and regulations established by the EPA.

The Clean Air Act allows for the various states to implement their own laws under the supervision of the US EPA. The states can adopt more stringent standards than the federal requirements except in the area of mobile sources. Tribal governments can also implement the Clean Air Act in their areas if they have the capability to do so. The EPA is authorized to pay 60% of the cost of planning, developing, and carrying out air pollution programs at the state level.

The EPA is given broad research authority in all facets of air quality control. This includes: conducting research; providing technical services to states; providing financial assistance; establishing technical advisory committees; and conducting and promoting training for air pollution specialists.

In 2014, the U.S. President Obama and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping signed an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This agreement has enormous consequences because for the first time China has recognized the huge significance of air pollution problems and their role in protecting the global society.

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