The Clean Air Act’s Victory Against Pollution


People over 50 remember the air pollution. I remember it. You could see it. You could smell it. You could even taste it. I remember riding in the back of a Ford Gran Torino station wagon on the Indiana Toll Road through the steel town of Gary, Indiana, in 1976. You could almost smell the town before you could see it. The stench was foul. A hellish haze hung over Gary, and you could make out the silhouettes of the steel mill in the distance. As you drove through the city, you didn’t know whether to roll up your windows up or roll them down to escape the smell. We tried both. Neither worked. There was no escape from the sulfurous odor.

Today, the air over Gary is nowhere near as foul and unhealthy as it was. Even though U.S. Steel’s Gary Works still can produce 7.5 millions tons of steel per year, the air is remarkably cleaner in Gary — and elsewhere in the United States — thanks to decisive action by the federal government in the form of the Clean Air Act, which was passed in 1970 and strengthened with subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990.

These laws, enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency and inspired by protests in Los Angeles and across the country, have drastically cut air pollution across the United States. Los Angeles suffered from infamous smog for decades — the same kind of smog that suffocates Beijing today and made London a hellscape at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Now, the air in LA is significantly improved. In 2014, the city recorded 94 “smog days,” compared with more than 200 per year in the late 1970s.

And air pollution isn’t just a cosmetic issue of foul smells and unsightly haze; it’s a health hazard. Even at today’s reduced levels, air pollution remains dangerous, causing bronchitis, emphysema, and even death. Air pollution causes 30,000 trips to emergency rooms and as many as 9,600 deaths annually, according to LA Weekly.

The gains in the fight against air pollution may be in jeopardy due to an executive order signed earlier this week by President Trump. “The centerpiece of the new presidential directive [instructs] the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants,” according to the Washington Post. In regulations that guard against air pollution and climate change, Trump perceives “a war on coal” that has somehow resulted in the “theft of American prosperity,” even though the coal industry accounts for just 75,000 jobs — fewer than the number of people employed at Arby’s.

Trump’s executive order has the potential to rollback important safeguards that protect the American people against pollution. What’s ironic is that China, a Trump bogeyman throughout the 2016 presidential election, is working hard to rollback air pollution in Beijing and throughout the country. In fact, China has announced a $100 billion investment in anti-pollution measures.

More than 60 million Americans voted for Trump. His recent executive orders indicate they may have put their pulmonary health in danger by doing so. “President Trump’s executive order to roll back vital climate and clean air protections this afternoon is the most brazen and transparent assault on the health of Americans in my lifetime,” Heather Zichal, an Obama administration official, told the Washington Post.

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