Why Americans still breathe known hazards decades after ‘clean air’ law

Posted by Trish Riley, November 21, 2011

Recent legislation would leave many communities vulnerable to airborne chemicals, among them Chester, Pa. “They told me a long time ago that I should move,” said Elwood Patrick, pictured above, “and I wish I had.” Emma Schwartz/iWatch News

Politics, industry and ‘hopelessly irrational’ EPA stymie air toxics crackdown

The stumbling, two-decade-old war on hazardous air pollutants — declared on Nov. 15, 1990, the day President George H. W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act amendments into law — has stalled on bureaucratic dawdling, industry resistance, legal maneuvering, limited resources and politics. Untainted air for all Americans — promised by Bush — has proved elusive.

As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR have reported, the pollutants persist in hundreds of communities, the result of regulators’ failure to act on a mandate from Washington and the best consensus from scientists. Internal records show that Clean Air Act violations sometimes languish for years without sufficient scrutiny or enforcement.

Ridding the nation’s air of nearly 200 dangerous chemicals has proved anything but easy. “It’s a little bit of a hit-or-miss approach,” said William K. Reilly, who led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the first Bush administration and is now a senior advisor to TPG Capital LP, an international private equity fund. “It sometimes seems like it’s ‘toxic of the moment.’ And it takes a considerable amount of time to effect the removal of a toxic once it’s identified as a target.”

Just writing the rules has been a drawn-out process, with much of the work unfinished even before the EPA ran into partisan headwinds as Republicans began targeting regulation in general and the EPA in particular in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives this fall would leave many communities vulnerable to airborne chemicals, among them the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pa., which has more than a dozen polluters within or near its boundaries.

Elwood Patrick moved to Chester in 1968 — 24 years before a large, foul-smelling waste-to-energy plant was built within a quarter-mile of his house, adding to the already substantial pollution burden created by oil refineries, a pulp mill and other industries in the area. The air in his neighborhood has gotten worse, said Patrick, who is 81. “You can’t keep nothing clean. Sometimes you need a mask on your face. They told me a long time ago that I should move and I wish I had. But now I’m an old man and I can’t go nowhere.”

Places like Chester are hit with chemical brews that may be more dangerous than their mixtures’ individual components.

“We’ve not really, I think, scratched the surface … in dealing with the effects of toxics as they combine and exacerbate each other,” said former Bush EPA chief Reilly.

Continue reading at The Center for Public Intergrity iWatch News
By Jim Morris and Corbin Hiar5:00 am, November 16, 2011 Updated: 8:11 am, November 16, 2011

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