Paper Tigers and Killer Air

How Weak Enforcement Leaves Communities Vulnerable to Smog

New report shows that many Americans live in areas with unsafe smog levels and offers solutions for raising air quality back to safe levels.

Paper Tigers and Killer Air, a report released today by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform, shows that more than 158 million Americans live in areas that fail to meet the federal standard for ground-level ozone pollution, which can cause lung damage and poses a particular risk to children. In these areas, “code red” or “code orange” air quality advisories are as familiar a part of the summer forecast as high heat and humidity levels.

Census data reveal that well over half the population in 10 of the nation’s 11 most populous states lives in areas with ozone levels that exceed the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In five of these states, more than 75 percent of the population lives in counties that fail to attain the EPA’s standard, and in one state, New Jersey, every single resident suffers under excessive ozone levels. 

States are primarily responsible for enforcing the federal ozone standard (as well as other air quality standards). But resources are inadequate to the task, due in large part to declining federal grants to state and local air quality agencies. This report documents the paltry number of inspectors available to inspect permitted air pollution facilities. In Texas, for example, the ratio is one inspector for every 352 permitted facilities.

In 1998, internal EPA audits showed that significant violations of the Clean Air Act by industrial facilities were going unreported and uncorrected because chronically under-funded states were not performing required inspections. Yet instead of committing additional resources to solve this problem, the EPA decided in 2001 to greatly relax standards for state inspections of facilities emitting ozone pollution. Under these extraordinarily weak rules, state inspectors must visit a factory spewing tens of thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants only once every five years.

This inaction may have made it easier for states to meet inspection requirements, but it also made it more difficult to improve air quality and achieve compliance with the ozone standard. Imagine, for example, the consequences of removing street patrols from the nation’s major cities for four out of five days. There undoubtedly would be a dramatic spike in crime. Likewise, in the absence of an effective compliance presence in the field (that is, inspectors who actually visit plants on a regular basis), industrial facilities are more likely to cut corners, avoid expenses, violate permit terms, and thus emit more air pollution than they are allowed.  

Cumulatively, the large factories that are left uninspected foul the air with millions of tons of air pollutants each year. In 1999 (the most recent year for which such data are available), the five largest stationary sources of ozone pollution in each of the 10 states analyzed in this report emitted a total of 173,193 tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which combine with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form ozone pollution, the principal cause of smog.

Pollution from these facilities is a major cause of “code orange” and “code red” days. Groups particularly vulnerable on these days include children, active adults, and those with asthma and chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema. Children with asthma—of which there are an estimated nine million in the United States—are considered at greatest risk. On “code orange” days, these vulnerable groups are warned to limit outdoor activity, while on “code red” days (the next step up on the EPA’s Air Quality Index, when everyone is warned to limit outdoor exertion), they are cautioned to avoid “prolonged” outdoor activity altogether.

Data collected by the EPA and presented in this report show that metropolitan areas in each of the 10 states analyzed in this report continue to experience numerous “code orange” and higher days. From 2001 through 2005, Riverside-San Bernardino, CA, for example, had 454 days “code orange” or higher; Houston had 126 days; Cleveland had 65 days; New York City had 55 days; and Chicago had 51 days.

In 1970, nearly four decades ago, Congress made eliminating dangerous levels of ozone in the air a national priority, requiring states to bring areas within their boundaries into attainment by 1977. Yet as areas continued to fall short of the ozone standard, Congress continued to push back the deadline, first to 1982, then to 1987, and then to 2005 for “severe” areas and 2010 for “extreme” areas. If the EPA intends the latest extension of the attainment deadline to be the last, it must get serious about enforcement, starting by putting environmental cops back on the beat. As the EPA’s own inspector general observed in 1998, inspections of industrial facilities “are the front line of an enforcement program upon which all other aspects of the program are built.”

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