The air in New York is pretty clean these days, but in the 1970s it wasn't. Air pollution caused by the effects of the tremendous postwar industrial expansion had become a fact of life in many cities, but New York, with its huge population density, was among the worst hit. In 1966, a four-day weather inversion killed scores of people who were breathing the really bad air. (I remember it well.) This was the worst of what had become an almost annual event, when warm air trapped by cooler air prevented the wind from dispersing particles and poisonous gases. A year earlier one of the heroes of the environmental movement, Hazel Henderson, had formed a citizen's action group to try to combat the growing pollution menace in New York. It was called Citizens for Clean Air. This group formed one of the vanguards in the fight against pollution and had a major impact on changing the way New Yorkers saw their environment. Before that, many residents had simply said, "Sure the air is bad, that's the price you pay for progress. You can't have good jobs, industry, and technology without some cost, and pollution is part of the cost.'' We easily forget that that was the predominant view in the country for this entire period, and people who thought that pollution was a serious danger that should be curbed had a hard time being heard. The general image of an environmentalist in those days was of a long-haired hippie who hated technology and wanted the whole planet to revert to the Stone Age. There were voices claiming that we could have technology without pollution and progress without dirty air and water, but these voices tended to belong to scientists and engineers, and most people didn't listen to them.
In the 1970s a New York City municipal law made incinerating garbage in private buildings illegal. Until then, every apartment building in New York had its own incinerator, and every day the garbage from thousands of apartments (including plastics, rubber, clothing, whatever) was burned. The smoke rose into the city air. I remember walking many times, when the wind was blowing just wrong, through the foul haze of some building's toxic-smoke emission from burning the day's refuse. It might seem incredible that a few decades ago the largest city in the country allowed unrestricted burning of waste on a huge scale. In fact, this was the norm everywhere. I remember when the incinerator in my building was converted into a waste compactor in order to comply with the new law. The superintendent no longer hauled bags of ashes out of the basement every week. Now he had to haul bags of compressed garbage. Black smoke no longer rose to the sky from hundreds of skyscrapers in New York. The difference that one single municipal law made was tremendous. The effect on air quality was obvious within less than a year.
Of course, things were not as simple as all that (they never are, are they?). The end of incineration meant a huge increase in the volume of solid waste to be disposed of, something that the city had difficulty dealing with for some time. It tried many solutions, including barges sent to dump the garbage out to sea. Many people asked whether this was really better than burning or whether it just shifted the problem somewhere else. But this problem also eventually found solutions, including recycling and the use of modern landfill technology such as at the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island, which is now being redeveloped as a park area. Now New York City is handling its waste issues with intelligence, and although solid-waste disposal will always have some environmental impact, the crisis has passed. The air is cleaner, and that is cause for rejoicing.
In fact many things got better simply because of the passage (and enforcement) of new laws. The federal government had begun thinking of starting to deal with the problem of pollution as early as 1960, when Congress funded the Public Health Service to investigate the health impacts of pollution. But for the next decade, a number of laws were passed that had no teeth and did little to impact the levels of pollution. The first Clean Water Act was passed in 1960 and the first Clean Air Act passed three years later. However these laws had nothing to do with enforcement, they involved a small amount of money, and they were mostly for doing research and some limited remediation. In 1967 the Air Quality Act directed funding to the states to help them set standards and develop their own air-quality agencies. The standards for water quality were determined by the federal government in the 1965 Water Quality Act. These laws were passed as part of the domestic Great Society initiative of Lyndon Johnson and were hailed at the time as being a great step forward for the progressive agenda and for cleaning up the country, but in fact they had very little effect.
Meanwhile President Johnson's other big initiative, the Vietnam War, was creating the largest protest movement the country had ever seen. The radicalization of American youth that occurred during the height of the war in 1967-1970 had as outgrowths a further radicalization of other issues as well, including militancy in the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement. People began demanding an end to pollution using the same sort of tactics and verbiage that had been dedicated to ending the Vietnam War, racism, and sexism. The environmental movement organized itself and carried off the first Earth Day in 1970 with tremendous success. From that day a shift in the consciousness of the entire
American polity from all parts of the political spectrum moved the arguments away from whether pollution could be controlled to how and how quickly it could be. That same year, the watershed year for environmental-ism, the Republican administration of Richard Nixon passed the Clean Air Act (the third of its name but the first real one), which included strict enforcement powers and a means to produce new and strictly enforced regulations through the operations of a new agency—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA, a cabinet-level agency, became responsible for the control and regulation of air and water pollution across the nation, and for the enforcement of its rules by fining and even closing companies that were in violation. The EPA took over the National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA), which had been part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Water Quality Administration (which in turn had been in the Department of the Interior).
The 1970s were a boom time for environmental laws, especially with the advent of the Carter administration. Some of the laws enacted during these years, with the ascendancy of environmentalists to positions of power, include the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (over President Nixon's veto); the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Soil and Water Conservation Act; the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund); the Endangered Species Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Most of these laws related to the environment gave the authority for enforcement and oversight to the EPA. One exception was the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which created a new agency devoted to the health and safety of American workers on the job. Although the EPA and OSHA shared many of the same concerns, such as the toxic effects of industrial chemicals, they operate quite differently and are responsible for very different sets of problems and concerns. Like EPA, OSHA is a regulatory and enforcement agency, and most plant managers, union stewards, and entrepreneurs know very well the meaning of the phrase "OSHA rules.''
The National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 states in its preamble:
The purposes of this Act are: To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation. . . .
In the language of the law, the phrase environmental impact is used for the first time, and the law required that an assessment of such an impact on the environment be made before any action be taken by any federal legislation. The concept of environmental impact quickly expanded and grew to include local, state, and federal laws that require environmental impact statements to be developed and approved before any large project, public or private, is undertaken, whether it is the building of a new shopping mall or the installation of a new power plant.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 was a breakthrough for environmental legislation in the United States. The act has been amended and strengthened twice since its initial passage. What the Clean Air Act actually did was allow the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The idea was that the EPA would set and publish "standards" (or limits) of the amount of various pollutants, such as airborne SO2 or phosphates in water, that the states had to reach by the year 1975. Some states complied with these standards and others didn't, either because they couldn't find a way to pass laws that would decrease the level of pollution, or because they had tried to do so and it just didn't work. Two years later in 1977, recognizing that in some cases the standards might have been unrealistic for certain states, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to allow more time to states that had not been able to reach the goals.
The state of California has often led the way for the country and world in passing air-quality regulations and legislation. The terrible Los Angeles smog, which became a health threat as well as a nuisance in the 1950s and 1960s, was probably a major driver in the formation of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). This state agency began to pass more stringent air pollution control laws than those in place at the federal level or in other states, and the main targets of these rules were emissions from automobiles, which are the main contributors to photochemical smog of the type seen in Los Angeles.
Because California is a major market for car sales, the automobile industry found itself in the position of either making special cars with lower emissions just for California or simply making all cars cleaner. It was more logical and economical to follow the latter course. In addition to California, some other states were highly proactive in dealing with air and water pollution independently of federal regulations. In fact, the original Clean Air Act specifically spelled out that the states had primary authority and responsibility to deal with pollution issues. The northeastern states, comprising most of New England, New York, and New Jersey, formed the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, which, along with parts of Florida; Houston, Texas; and other localities, joined California in pressing for stringent environmental controls. As one might expect, this has resulted in a great deal of variability in how industries are regulated across the country. For large industries like the automotive or chemical industries, which sell products everywhere, this can be a nightmare. The emergence of the EPA and its nationwide mandate to administer uniform national environmental-quality control was therefore actually quite helpful to larger industries in this regard.
One of the provisions of the Clean Air Act required further research into the health effects of automotive-related pollution. Congress mandated in the act that the cost of this research should be shared by the government and the automotive industry. On the government side, the responsibility for funding this effort was given to the EPA, an agency that has often been at loggerheads with the automotive as well as other industries. Although it might seem at first to be an insurmountable challenge for the EPA and the automotive industry, with their very different purposes and goals, to cooperate enough to manage the required research program, the reality is that this is exactly what has been done and with a good deal ofsuccess for the past two decades. The solution was to create a new independent agency called the Health Effects Institute (HEI), based in Boston. HEI is staffed by scientists and led by people with experience in environmental and societal affairs. The board of directors of this institute includes a number of well-known public figures, including (until his recent death) Archibald Cox, the Harvard law professor of Watergate fame. The actual decisions as to where the funding (provided in equal measure by a consortium of the automotive industry and the EPA) is spent are made by a panel of independent academic-research scientists, which included me from 1992 to 2000.
I was pleasantly surprised to observe during my time on the research committee of HEI that the interactions between the EPA and HEI's automotive sponsors were usually polite, well meaning, and cooperative. I learned from this experience that many (perhaps most) of the industrial scientists, medical officers, and even businesspeople do not really want to cause unlimited pollution in pursuit of profit, but are also interested in preventing harm to public health. At the same time, the EPA people I met were not anticapital-ists bent on hamstringing American progress with needless regulations. Both groups were reasonable professionals who were dedicating their professional lives to improving the human condition, albeit from different points of view. The research committee absolutely maintained the critical concept of total independence in making its decisions as to who got funded, for what research, and the autonomy of the people actually doing the research. Both the EPA and the industry knew that although the results of some research projects might not be to their particular liking, the enterprise as a whole had the necessary credibility in the rest of the scientific and political community. The HEI model is a good one to emulate in other areas of confrontation among politically opposed groups when independent scientific findings would be helpful in understanding the reality of the situation.
Among the laws passed by local communities during the heyday of public support for environmental legislation were those that required extensive recycling of waste, including (in most places) household garbage. The idea of recycling had become a central theme in the environmental movement and was rapidly taken up by schoolchildren and the media as the most direct and hands-on approach to saving the planet. The concept of recycling was originally a radical and outlandish idea. It met with opposition from many quarters, and most pundits predicted failure based on two lines ofreasoning. First, it was expected that no one would voluntarily submit to the time, effort, cost, and inconvenience required for routine and successful recycling. People argued that recycling for some businesses might make economic sense, but for the typical householder there was no direct benefit at all, except for the avoidance of fines. And enforcement was predicted to be a nightmare. There were humorous and also not-so-funny evocations of a new "eco-police'' who would pick through everyone's personal garbage.
The second point, often raised by economists, was that recycling made little economic sense for cheap products like paper and plastic because recycled materials would cost more than new, unused raw material. The first objection, although seemingly very logical, especially in an individualistic society like the United States, turned out not to be valid. The powerful new cultural paradigm of saving the earth eventually overcame the disgruntled attitude of "Joe homeowner,'' who, within a few years, learned that separating the paper and the glass from the rest of the garbage was just one of those things he had to do. Besides, if he didn't, chances were his teenage daughter would accuse him of being an Earth-destroying monster. The second objection proved more valid as time went on, and during the late 1980s there was a growing surplus of recycled materials such as glass, rubber tires, and other waste that could not find a market. Some people came up with creative solutions. The city of Baltimore repaved its streets using a new composite that contained recycled glass. People found tires useful in a number of applications, from children's playgrounds to fuel additives.
What has been the record of recycling over the past decades? The percentage of material produced in the United States that is eventually recycled has climbed steadily. In 1980 about 5 percent of glass was recovered by recycling. In 1998 the figure was 25 percent—a fivefold gain. In the same period, paper recycling went from 22 percent to 42 percent, and ferrous metals (iron and steel) from 3 percent to 35 percent, a tenfold increase. Some materials like aluminum and other nonferrous metals had always been recycled within the industries that use these materials for purely economic reasons. However, even for these materials the degree of recycling has also increased, so that 67 percent of all nonferrous metal is recycled, as is 25 percent of all aluminum. An area that has not done well in recycling is plastics, which posted a 5 percent recycling rate in 1998 compared to 2 percent in 1980. Recycled plastic will never be a realistic commodity for economic reasons. This presents a problem in terms of solid waste, because so much production of plastic material goes on in the world, and the vast majority of these items end up in solid-waste dumps where they do not of course ever degrade.
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