Fight Air Pollution for Clean Air—and Water

Air pollution does more than foul our air—it fouls our water. But Congress has the abiliity to fight pollution on both fronts.

There is only one inspector for every 352 permitted air pollution facilities in Texas. States are primarily responsible for enforcing federal air pollution standards, but as the recent Center for American Progress report “Paper Tigers and Killer Air” shows, states have insufficient resources to complete the task.

Air pollution is a central front in the fight to protect the environment. It fouls not only the air we breathe but also our water through atmospheric deposition that contributes to nonpoint source pollution—emissions or polluted runoff that contaminate the water. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing today on nonpoint source pollution is a good first step toward making the reduction of air pollution a national priority.

Internal Environmental Protection Agency audits conducted in 1998 show that significant violations of the Clean Air Act were going unreported and uncorrected because under-funded states were not performing required inspections. But rather than devoting additional resources to address the problem, the EPA in 2001 significantly slackened standards for state inspections of facilities that emit ozone pollution. Under the new rules, a state inspector only has to visit a factory that releases tens of thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants once every five years.

The large factories left uninspected foul the air with millions of tons of air pollutants each year. In 1999, the five largest stationary sources of ozone pollution in each of the 10 states analyzed in “Paper Tigers and Killer Air” emitted a total of 173,193 tons of volatile organic compounds that combine with nitrogen oxides to form ozone pollution, the principal cause of smog.

Pollution from these facilities is a major cause of “code orange” and “code red” poor air-quality days. Children, active adults, and people with asthma and chronic lung diseases are particularly vulnerable on these days. Children with asthma are considered at greatest risk, and are no small constituency, with nine million such children in the United States. On poor air-quality days, members of these vulnerable groups are warned to limit outdoor activity or avoid it altogether.

Lax inspection rules have made it more difficult to address air pollution that results not only in poor air quality that affects people’s health but also—through atmospheric deposition and nonpoint source pollution processes—water quality.

Congress can create the conditions necessary for a return to a vigorous enforcement program. In particular, Congress should ensure proper inspection of air-polluting factories and give states and localities the resources they need to police polluters. Adequate enforcement of air pollution standards will serve to make both our air and our water cleaner.

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