As new statistics show 133 million Americans are breathing in harmful exhaust fumes, President Bush amends a law that critics say will only inflame the growing health crisis.
President George Bush’s "Clear Skies" initiative had better work because the country’s air pollution is getting worse.
A recent report issued by the Surface Transportation Policy Project says nearly 133 million Americans living in and around metropolitan areas are breathing in exhaust fumes from cars and heavy-duty trucks.
While the administration busied itself with changes to the Clean Air Act, new scientific studies continue to link air pollution to asthma, heart, lung and respiratory diseases and cancer.
Exhausts from vehicles aggravate asthma and respiratory diseases even as it puts to greater risk the lives of seniors and children.
The cost to public health is between $40bn and $64bn a year. Larger cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have one of the highest public health costs, in excess of $1bn.
"Our study shows air pollution continues to be a serious health problem and transportation sources are a significant part of that problem.
The public deserves a federal transportation programme that lowers their exposure to unhealthy air and delivers transportation choices beyond simply having to turn an ignition key," said Anne Canby, President of the Washington DC-based Surface Transportation Policy Project, which authored the report.
The report also showed air pollution in some metropolitan areas as having worsened.
Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson (SC), amongst the worst hit regions in the country, had a 175 per cent increase in smog levels between 1993-1997 and 1998-2002.
Other areas affected included Charlotte (NC), Knoxville (TN), and Memphis (TN).
From 2000 to 2002, Riverside-San Bernardino, California had 445 unhealthy air days followed by Fresno (CA) 421 days, Bakersfield (CA) 409 days and Los Angeles with 255 days.
"The public health impact of air pollutants from cars and trucks is enormous," said Dr Howard Frumkin, Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University, speaking for the American Public Health Association.
"Thousands of Americans suffer and even die prematurely because of air pollution each year, from asthma, other respiratory diseases, heart diseases, cancer, and other ailments. Transportation policies that clean up our air are essential public health policy."
The loophole to pollute
However, even as President Bush announced a $1bn initiative to help develop hydrogen fuel cell technology to lessen America’s dependency on foreign oil, the 2004 energy budget assigned $11m to fund the Minerals Management Service’s offshore oil and gas programme off the Gulf of Mexico and another $2m to renewable energy resources.
What’s more, in August this year, the Bush Administration put through a change to the Clean Air Act creating a loophole, which environmental groups say will only exacerbate the crisis.
Known as the New Source Review (NSR), power plants built before the 1970s can replace equipment without installing any anti-pollution device required to control smog, acid rain and soot without the threat of lawsuits.
The White House said the reform clarifies the New Source Review definition on maintenance and repair.
A statement released by Republican Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said: "for far too long, enforcement of the NSR programme has been burdensome, confusing, contradictory, and counterproductive to environmental progress.
"The President’s action means NSR will no longer be a barrier to investments in state-of-the-art pollution control technologies that reduce pollution and make our air cleaner."
Democratic Senator Jim Jeffords, member of the Senate Environmental Committee, called the change "a victory for polluting power plants and devastating defeat for public health and environment."
So, while more energy companies continue to expand their oil, gas and coal outputs at the cost of the country’s national parks and protected areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Yellowstone National Park, the Bush Administration say the initiative plans to reduce power plant emissions by 70 per cent by 2018.
This is cold comfort for those already suffering from the ill effects of pollution.
Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit organisation said the loopholes would mean an additional 20,000 pre-mature deaths, 400,000 asthma attacks and at least 12,000 cases of chronic bronchitis per year.
"Instead of offering us a future of clear skies, this rule offers us a future of skies filled with more smog, more soot and more pollution," said Jeffords.
GOA counters ‘cleaner air’ claim
Meanwhile, a General Accounting Office report obtained by Senator Jeffords said the Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) issued the new rule in order to streamline the NSR and offer more flexibility to energy producing companies.
In what would further fuel the energy debate between the White House and environmental groups, the GOA concluded that the EPA lacked evidence and the resources to support the administration’s claim that the new NSR rule would decrease air pollution.
Moreover, the EPA had "relied on anecdotes from the four industries it believes are most affected by NSR to conclude that the NSR programme (prior to the rule) discouraged some energy efficiency projects, such as upgrades to industrial boilers, including some that would have decreased emissions."
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace as well as several states have launched lawsuits to overturn the rule.
The American Lung Association has also expressed its concerns over the rollbacks.
John Kirkwood, President and Chief Executive Officer, said: "We strongly oppose the rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency that will roll back key provisions of the Clean Air Act, called New Source Review."
The association has also joined in taking legal action against the new rule.
"The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision is the latest in a series of steps that undermine large parts of the most effective environmental law in the United States," said Mr Kirkwood.