Time to clear the air

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Go outside and take a whiff. Go ahead. Grab yourself a big gulp of 02 and hold your breath. How do you feel? Well, if you live in Central Florida, you're probably not falling down, clutching your chest and coughing spasmodically. (Lucky I didn't ask you to turn on the tap and get a drink. More on that some other time.)

Unfortunately, if you live in Los Angeles or Fresno, Calif.; Houston; Atlanta; Knoxville, Tenn.; or Charlotte, N.C., chances are you're not feeling altogether chipper the moment after sucking in some atmosphere. Those cities, as well as nearly 700 counties whose air has been monitored between 1998 and 2000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have "unhealthful" levels of pollution. Of those counties, 407 actually have smog levels above the legal limit.

In fact, according to a recent survey by the American Lung Association, fully half of the country's population is breathing unhealthy air. Its "State of the Air" report shows that more than 142 million Americans live in places with high levels of ozone air pollution, mainly because the standards in place to reduce the smog -- the country's Clean Air Act -- are simply not being enforced.

And they're not likely to be any time soon. The Bush administration is in no hurry to allow the 1970 Clean Air Act -- and the 1990 amendments to it signed into law by President George Bush -- to take full effect, even though documents from the EPA suggest that doing so could prevent at least 19,000 premature deaths, 12,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 17,000 hospitalizations, and would save about $154 billion in annual health care costs by 2020.

Rather, the present resident of the White House, George W. Bush, has rejected his own EPA's recommendations that current law be enforced, and is instead pushing his Clear Skies Initiative. The program aims to reduce sulfur, smog and mercury emissions about 70 percent from today's levels over a period of 10 to 15 years, based on the market-based scheme called "cap and trade."

Proponents of "cap and trade" contend that it has been used effectively to reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions -- which helped cause the acid rain that has decimated parts of the Adirondacks -- in the 1990s more quickly and more cheaply than the so-called "command-and-control" methods that preceded it. They also maintain that "natural capitalism" -- the theory that companies who become more environmentally efficient will prosper while their dirty competitors fail -- is the wave of the future.

Critics suggest that "cap and trade" is an industry-friendly strategy that lets individual companies figure out how to meet the program's goals on their own, without forcing them to actually clean up dirty plants. Under Bush's Clear Skies, for example, plants with high levels of emissions could either choose to reduce them or, if that option is too expensive, buy credits from plants with lower emissions -- effectively paying others with lower cleanup costs to reduce their own emissions on the first com-pany's behalf. This option, according to some environmentalists, would simply allow the dirtiest plants, like some coal-fired ones in the Midwest, to remain perpetually dirty.

In any case, George W.'s veracity on the issue of wanting to clean America's air is questionable at best, based on his history as governor of Texas. During his tenure, air quality in that state's metro areas deteriorated markedly, with Houston passing L.A. as the dirtiest city in the nation. And during his time in Austin, Bush actually backed a law that proposed to grant immunity -- and a pledge of secrecy -- to industrial polluters if they voluntarily informed state regulators that they had violated Texas' pollution laws.

Add to this depressing state of affairs the fact that neither the president nor Congress is seriously addressing the need to regulate carbon dioxide, the main gas that causes global warming and helps trap other noxious poisons in the atmosphere, and we may wind up going down a long and dirty road with disastrous consequences.

If there are those outside our borders who wish to see the demise of American society, they needn't crash airplanes into our tallest buildings. Without a serious and sustained effort to clean America's air, all they have to do is produce more cheap oil, watch a Congress unwilling to mandate higher emission standards for SUVs and a president ready to do anything to placate the coal and oil industries -- and wait. Given enough time, we'll simply smother ourselves to death and that will be that.

All right, now, everybody -- exhale.

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