Too Many Air Polluters, Too Few Inspectors

WASHINGTON, DC, November 30, 2006 (ENS) - In 10 of America's most populous states, more than half the residents breate air so smoggy that pollution levels routinely exceed federal safety standards, according to a new study by two nonprofit progressive research and educational organizations that examines state enforcement of clean air laws.

In New Jersey, every single county fails to meet federal standards for ozone pollution, the major component of smog. In California, 94 percent of counties do not meet the standards.

power plant

New Jersey's Mercer power plant is on the Delaware River. Operated by the Public Service Electric & Gas system, it burns coal and natural gas. (Photo courtesy C. Bergesen)
In Pennsylvania, 88 percent of residents live in counties that fail to meet federal standards for ozone pollution, while 85 percent of New Yorkers breathe dangerous levels of smog.

Under the Clean Air Act, state and local air quality officials have the primary responsibility for implementing the nation's clean air program. But the study finds that state environmental agencies in the 10 profiled states do not have enough inspectors to monitor industrial emissions and enforce the law.

The Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform today issued the report, "Paper Tigers and Killer Air: How Weak Enforcement Leaves Communities Vulnerable to Smog."

The problem lies with declining federal grants to state and local air quality agencies, which are primarily responsible for enforcing federal clean air standards, the report concludes.

"When it comes to ozone pollution, the cop is off the beat," says report co-author Rena Steinzor, a member of the board of the Center for Progressive Reform and a law professor at the University of Maryland. "Laws that aren't enforced aren't respected."

"Local restaurants and beauty parlors, and even cars in many states, must be inspected far more often than major polluters," said Steinzor. "No wonder the nation's children suffer from an epidemic of asthma."

Exposure to air pollutants is linked not only to asthma but also to respiratory problems, exacerbation of heart and lung diseases, cancer and death.

Steinzor says the approach taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the states makes it easy for polluters to cut corners, avoid expenses, violate permit terms, and thus emit more air pollution than they are allowed.

Underfunding of state and local government air quality programs is nothing new but the problem has gotten worse over the past few years.

Since 1993, federal grants to state and local air quality agencies have declined by 25 percent when adjusted for inflation, the study found.

President Bush's FY 2007 budget calls for another cut of $15.6 million from a current budget of $172.7 million.

Upon taking office in 2001, the Bush administration relaxed inspection requirements on the states.

Now states must inspect polluting sources, even factories emitting tens of thousands of tons of air pollutants, once every five years. But even that level of work is underfunded.

In 2002 the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee regarding the FY 2003 Budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These two national associations, now known as the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, represent air quality officials in 54 states and territories and more than 165 metropolitan areas across the United States.

"State and local air quality agencies have been operating with inadequate financial support for years, making it difficult for us to operate programs that are as robust as they need to be," they testified.


The U.S. EPA is required to address 188 toxic air pollutants, many emitted by factories, refineries, and power plants. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"A study we conducted several years ago, in cooperation with EPA, estimated that federal grants to state and local air pollution control agencies under Section 105 of the Clean Air Act fell short of our needs by nearly $100 million each year," they told the subcommittee.

The 10 states profiled in the new study are California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Together they have a total of more than 158,000 sites with permits to emit ozone pollution. But they report having fewer than 1,100 inspectors, meaning that on average each inspector is responsible for inspecting 145 permitted facilities.

California and Texas each have more than 50,000 permitted polluting facilities, many more than the other most populous states, and they also have the highest ratio of polluting facilities to inspectors. Texas has 352 sites per inspector, while in California each inspector is responsible for 166.

"America's children are paying the price for this neglect, said Reece Rushing, associate director for regulatory policy at the Center for American Progress. "During code red or code orange days, parents are faced with an absurd choice - keep their children indoors when they could be out playing or risk exposing them to unsafe air."

More money for state enforcement of clean air standards is the solution, says Rushing, who looks to the incoming Congress controlled by Democrats to correct the problem when they take hold of the reins in January.

"The new Congress has an opportunity to set a new course by renewing federal investment in state and local air quality agencies and insisting on more frequent inspections," Rushing said.

Click here to read the report, "Paper Tigers and Killer Air: How Weak Enforcement Leaves Communities Vulnerable to Smog."