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More on the Clean Air Act

Cleaning up air pollution: the programs in the 1990 Clean Air Act

Smog and other "criteria" air pollutants

A few common air pollutants are found all over the United States. These pollutants can injure health, harm the environment and cause property damage.

EPA calls these pollutants criteria air pollutants because the agency has regulated them by first developing health-based criteria (science-based guidelines) as the basis for setting permissible levels. One set of limits (primary standard) protects health; another set of limits (secondary standard) is intended to prevent environmental and property damage. A geographic area that meets or does better than the primary standard is called an attainment area; areas that don't meet the primary standard are called nonattainment areas.

Although EPA has been regulating criteria air pollutants since the 1970 CAA was passed, many urban areas are classified as nonattainment for at least one criteria air pollutant. It has been estimated that about 90 million Americans live in nonattainment areas.

How Smog is Formed

What we typically call smog is primarily made up of ground-level ozone. Ozone can be good or bad depending on where it is located. Ozone in the stratosphere high above the Earth protects human health and the environment, but ground-level ozone is the main harmful ingredient in smog.

Ground-level ozone is produced by the combination of pollutants from many sources, including smokestacks, cars, paints and solvents. When a car burns gasoline, releasing exhaust fumes, or a painter paints a house, smog-forming pollutants rise into the sky.

Often, wind blows smog-forming pollutants away from their sources. The smog-forming reactions take place while the pollutants are being blown through the air by the wind. This explains why smog is often more severe miles away from the source of smog-forming pollutants than it is at the source.

The smog-forming pollutants literally cook in the sky, and if it's hot and sunny, smog forms more easily. Just as it takes time to bake a cake, it takes time to cook up smog-several hours from the time pollutants get into the air until the smog gets really bad.

Weather and geography determine where smog goes and how bad it is. When temperature inversions occur (warm air stays near the ground instead of rising) and winds are calm, smog may stay in place for days at a time. As traffic and other sources add more pollutants to the air. the smog gets worse.

Since smog travels across county and state lines, when a metropolitan area covers more than one state (for instance, the New York metropolitan area includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut), their governments and air pollution control agencies must cooperate to solve their problem. Governments on the East Coast from Maine to Washington, D.C., will have to work together in a multistate effort to reduce the area's smog problem.

Here's how the 1990 Clean Air Act reduces pollution from criteria air pollutants, including smog.

First, EPA and state governors cooperated to identify nonattainment areas for each criteria air pollutant. Then, EPA classified the nonattainment areas according to how badly polluted the areas are. There are five classes of nonattainment areas for smog, ranging from marginal (relatively easy to clean up quickly) to extreme (will take a lot of work and a long time to clean up).

The 1990 Clean Air Act uses this new classification system to tailor clean-up requirements to the severity of the pollution and set realistic deadlines for reaching clean-up goals. If deadlines are missed, the law allows more time to clean up, but usually a nonattainment area that has missed a clean-up deadline will have to meet the stricter clean-up requirements set for more polluted areas.

Not only must nonattainment areas meet deadlines, states with nonattainment areas must show EPA that they are moving on clean-up before the deadline-making reasonable further progress.

States will usually do most of the planning for cleaning up criteria air pollutants, using the permit system to make sure power plants, factories and other pollution sources meet their clean-up goals.

The comprehensive approach to reducing criteria air pollutants taken by the 1990 Act covers many different sources and a variety of clean-up methods. Many of the smog clean-up requirements involve motor vehicles (cars, trucks, buses). Also, as the pollution gets worse, pollution controls are required for smaller sources.

Other criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide and particulates

The carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM-10) clean-up plans are set up like the plan for smog, but only two pollution classes are identified for each (instead of the five for ozone). Getting rid of particulates (soots, dusts, smoke) will require pollution controls on power plants and restrictions on smaller sources such as wood stoves, agricultural burning, and dust from fields and roads. Because so many homes have woodstoves and fireplaces, this summary of the Clean Air Act includes a section on Woodstoves and fireplaces, providing information on how the Clean Air Act will affect these home heating systems.

1997 Changes to the Clean Air Act

EPA recently reviewed the current air quality standards for ground-level ozone (commonly known as smog) and particulate matter (or PM). Based on new scientific evidence, revisions have been made to both standards. At the same time, EPA is developing a new program to control regional haze, which is largely caused by particulate matter.


What if a company wants to expand or change a production process or otherwise increase its output of a criteria air pollutant? If an owner or operator of a major source wants to release more of a criteria air pollutant, an offset (a reduction of the criteria air pollutant by an amount somewhat greater than the planned increase) must be obtained somewhere else, so that permit requirements are met and the nonattainment area keeps moving toward attainment. The company must also install tight pollution controls. An increase in a criteria air pollutant can be offset with a reduction of the pollutant from some other stack at the same plant or at another plant owned by the same or some other company in the nonattainment area. Since total pollution will continue to go down, trading offsets among companies is allowed. This is one of the market approaches to cleaning up air pollution in the Clean Air Act.

Criteria air pollutants in gasoline and consumer products

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), important smog-forming chemicals, are found in gasoline and many consumer products, from hair spray to charcoal starter fluid to plastic popcorn packaging. This summary includes a section on Consumer Products; see that section for information on how the Clean Air Act will affect products you use every day. Information on changes in gasoline will be found in the section on Mobile Sources.

Hazardous air pollutants

Some air pollutants can cause cancer, problems with having children and other very serious illnesses as well as environmental damage. Air pollutants have killed people swiftly when large quantities were released; the 1984 release of methyl isocyanate at a pesticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, killed approximately 4,000 people and injured more than 200,000.

EPA refers to chemicals that cause serious health and environmental hazards as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) or air toxics.

Air toxics are released from sources throughout the country and from motor vehicles. For example, gasoline contains toxic chemicals. Gases escape from liquid gasoline and form a vapor in a process called vaporization or evaporation. When you put gas in your car, you can often see wavy lines in the air at the pump nozzle and you can smell gasoline; that tells you gasoline vapors are in the air.

Cars & Stores

When cars and trucks burn gasoline, air toxics come out of the tailpipes. (These air toxics are combustion products--chemicals that are produced when a substance is burned.)

Air toxics are released from small stationary sources, such as dry cleaners and auto paint shops Large stationary sources, such as chemical factories and incinerators, also release hazardous air pollutants. The 1990 Clean Air Act deals more strictly with large sources than small ones, but EPA must regulate small sources of hazardous air pollutants as well.

To reduce air toxics pollution, EPA must first identify the toxic pollutants whose release should be reduced. The 1970 Clean Air Act gave EPA authority to list air toxics for regulation and then to regulate the chemicals. The agency listed and regulated seven chemicals through 1990. The 1990 Act includes a list of 189 hazardous air pollutants selected by Congress on the basis of potential health and/or environmental hazard; EPA must regulate these listed air toxics. The 1990 Act allows EPA to add new chemicals to the list as necessary.

To regulate hazardous air pollutants, EPA must identify categories of sources that release the 189 chemicals listed by Congress in the 1990 Clean Air Act. Categories could be gasoline service stations, electrical repair shops, coal-burning power plants, chemical plants, etc. The air toxics producers are to be identified as major (large) or area (small) sources.

Once the categories of sources are listed, EPA will issue regulations. In some cases, EPA may have to specify exactly how to reduce pollutant releases, but wherever possible companies will have flexibility to choose how they meet requirements. Sources are to use Maximum Available Control Technology (MACT) to reduce pollutant releases; this is a very high level of pollution control.

EPA must issue regulations for major sources first, and must then issue regulations to reduce pollution from small sources, setting priorities for which small sources to tackle first, based on health and environmental hazards, production volume, etc.

If a company wishes to increase the amount of air toxics coming out of an operating plant, the company may choose to offset the increases so that total hazardous air pollutant releases from the plant do not go up. Otherwise, they may choose to install pollution controls to keep pollutants at the required level.

If a company reduces its releases of a hazardous air pollutant by about 90 percent before EPA regulates the chemical, the company will get extra time to finish cleaning up the remaining 10 percent. This early reduction program is expected to result in a speedy reduction of the levels of several important hazardous air pollutants.

Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, EPA is required to study whether and how to reduce hazardous air pollutants from small neighborhood polluters such as auto paint shops, print shops, etc. The agency will also have to look at air toxics pollution after the first round of regulations to see whether the remaining health hazards require further regulatory action.

Cars, trucks, buses and other mobile sources release large amounts of hazardous air pollutants like formaldehyde and benzene. Cleaner fuels and engines and making sure that pollution control devices work should reduce hazardous air pollutants from mobile sources.

The Bhopal tragedy inspired the 1990 Clean Air Act requirement that factories and other businesses develop plans to prevent accidental releases of highly toxic chemicals. The Act establishes the Chemical Safety Board to investigate and report on accidental releases of hazardous air pollutants from industrial plants. The Chemical Safety Board will operate like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane and train crashes.

Source: EPA

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