Industry, Environmentalists Debate New Air Pollution Rules

Industry, Environmentalists Debate New Air Pollution Rules

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News Specialist John Daley reportingWill the air we breathe become dirtier and more dangerous as a result of new federal air pollution rules?

That's the question many are asking after the Bush administration published the new rules Tuesday -- rules that prompted immediate lawsuits in nine states.

There's no doubt Utah, in particular the Wasatch Front, has a smog problem.

In 2001, Salt Lake City had 31 days of air quality warnings. And last year, smog threatened to cast a cloud over the Olympics until the inversion lifted.

Now, a new debate is erupting over new clean air rules adopted by the Bush administration on New Year's Eve.

The rules concern a program known as New Source Review.

The changes would allow thousands of coal-fired power plants and other industrial sites to upgrade without having to install costly anti-pollution devices.

The administration says the move will strengthen the Clean Air Act.

But nine Northeastern states believe it will gut that landmark law, and immediately filed a legal challenge in federal court.

Eliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general and an organizer of the suit, says "The Bush administration has taken an action that will bring more acid rain, more smog, more asthma and more respiratory disease to millions of Americans."

The state's top environmental regulator says Utah's air is measurably cleaner than it was a decade ago, and the new rules will give industry greater flexibility in meeting federal standards.

"So you feel pretty confident this won't actually make our air quality worse, it'll make it better. It will make it easier for us to implement the program. It's not going to have an adverse effect on air quality," says Diane Nielsen, executive director with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Local environmentalists disagree.

"That seems like nonsense," says Ivan Weber, chairman of Utah's Chapter of the Sierra Club.

He argues that the Bush administration is in essence dismantling the nation's environmental laws as a payback to the industries that gave millions to the president's election campaign.

With global warming a growing threat, he says the timing couldn't be worse.

"This is by design. Clearly it's laissez faire run amok," Weber says.

Brigham Young University professor Arden Pope is one of the nation's prominent air quality experts.

His groundbreaking research has shown a clear link between air pollution and respiratory illness.

He believes we can improve air quality at a lower cost, but isn't certain this is the way to go.

"The air pollution is real. And the air pollution does have significant health problems for us. And so we don't want to completely relax our efforts to clean up the air, or else we'll find ourselves in troubles down the road," Pope says.

"I mean, the proof will be in the pudding or the pea soup as we know it along the Wasatch Front," he says.

The American Lung Association estimates that smog and microscopic soot causes thousands of premature deaths annually and increases the number of respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

The question is whether these new rules will make that problem worse.

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