When working in a regulated industry, the focus is usually on how can I comply with the regulation, or questioning why the regulation has been drafted that way. The ultimate purpose of the regulation has a tendency to get lost in the day-to-day management of how the regulation is worded, how it is inspected, and what types of violations have been recently highlighted. Such is the case of the Clean Air Act.
If you look at the history of the Clean Air Act in the United States, there was a need to do something. If you drove through certain areas of the country in the 1970's, or 1980's, you would routinely see haze, particulate material, smog, etc. Depending where you were located or the time of year, the air had a taste or color to it. While there are still locations that have days like this due to weather conditions (inversions, ozone alerts, etc.) the frequency and severity have been greatly reduced. And reduced to a point that the discussion is now focused on - what should the new "standard" be?
We tend to get so tunnel visioned on what we have to do, and what might be next - that we forget to stop and see how far we have come. To that end, EPA has released the Second Integrated Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress. This report focuses on the the changes that have occurred since the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The Report, which can be found here, highlights reductions in benzene, mercury, lead, and a removal of an estimated 1.5 million tons per year of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).
The Report is also setting the stage for the next round of regulatory activity, much of which has already been anticipated and the regulated community is already seeing in the proposed air regulations. These include:
- Improving emissions data
- Ambient air monitoring
- Implementation of new monitoring technologies
- More research into the cumulative impacts of exposure to air toxics on human health
- Better integration of air toxics, pollution prevention and voluntary programs in regulatory and non-regulatory efforts
- Regulatory tools to direct national regulatory efforts at source categories where emissions pose significant risks
The challenge that is faced both by the regulated and regulatory community is that any new regulatory or regulatory focus must be based on sound science, and take into account other factors, such as resource allocation, social priorities, and economic considerations.
We have reached a point where different questions may need to be asked. For example, if the regulated community is going to spend dollars toward complying with a particular air regulation - would those dollars have a greater impact if they were focused toward a different media, i.e. supporting clean up of historic waste sites, water treatment systems for the community versus the plant, etc.? It may be time to start looking at an approach that targets balancing overall emissions rather than targeting a specific media. Or, is it time to focus on the more nebulous sources of pollution? The fundamental question that needs to be asked is - are we targeting our limited resources in the correct manner or are we regulating to a point that we may actually have a negative impact on our overall well being? Something to ponder - as we embark on the next round of regulatory action.