American air pollution laws: A history of constant amendments

Despite many issues that American air pollution norms have, there is a certain level of merit in the system

By Ratish Srivastava
Published: Thursday 06 August 2020
American air pollution laws have a history of constant amendments. Photo: needpix.com

What does it mean to have a strong legality? An extensive legal structure that enumerates all the necessary steps, guidance, reporting and enforcement or is that too complicated of a system to have.

For the United States, managing air pollution is not a complicated structure but it hopes to recommend the necessary laws that will ensure clean air. Since its inception in 1953 into American laws, the Clean Air Act (CAA) has gone through multiple revisions.

There have been four major amendments with multiple subsidiary laws established to support the main act. The CAA now covers an extensive range of conditions for stationary and non-stationary sources of air pollution to follow with a strong enforcement mechanism.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) functions to uphold the federal law at state level, by reviewing the State Implementation Plan (SIP) and creating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) standards.

They review the NAAQS standards every five years through which each state has to revise their SIPs. Once the state prepares the SIP and is accepted by the EPA after review, each SIP becomes a federal law and has to abide by federal guidelines of enforcement and compliance.

The CAA also authorised the Department of Health, Education and Public Welfare (HEW), who conduct research into air pollution prevention and abatement as well as “criteria”, reflecting the health and welfare effects expected.

The HEW was also authorised to request the Department of Justice to bring suit to abate interstate air pollution, although in limited authority. Between 1970 and 2019, the combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) dropped by 77 per cent. This progress occurred while the US economy continued to grow.

Despite many issues that the American air pollution norms have, which include factors such as poor accounting for emissions from aging equipment, there is a certain level of merit in the system. However, the economic benefits have far outweighed the cost of controlling pollution, estimated at four to eight times the cost of compliance.

The CAA has created a situation where maintaining compliance has led to technological innovation and improved health of the environment and the public.

The question that arises from this is whether we can create a similar structure in India for air pollution. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) has provided a pathway for the first time in detail, a method to control air pollution. However, it is an order made by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and does not fall under a Central act, like the Environmental Protection Act or the Air Act.

There is a chance that it might become a guideline for states than an enforceable law that ensures good air quality for the citizens. The US provides policymakers in India a pathway to contextualise the merits of CAA into the NCAP.

The most common trend in all CAA amendments was the increasing role of the federal authority. The trajectory of responsibility starts at the federal level and is passed down to the states that have plenary powers.

Since the federal government has a clause for supremacy, their authority is defined over the states that have no option but to comply. Non-compliance by the state results in sanctions, civil and criminal suits.

The federal government also provides for economic incentives and subsidies to help with the job of compliance. A similar delineation of power and responsibility is the need of the hour, as Indian cities are slowly being engulfed in air pollution.

The Air Act, 1981 is a strong legal act. What it needs is a revision and that too, constantly. It primarily focuses on stationary sources, ie industry specifically. There is no mechanism to include non-stationary sources like vehicular pollution or for indoor air pollution.

The NCAP has been enforced by the NGT as of now, but it needs a clear direction from the central government for it to have the desired impact. The targets set in the NCAP, which have to be reduced by 20-30 per cent by 2024 from 2017 levels, are already considered weak.

However, there is a risk of not meeting those standards. The action points of the cities in their action plan lack enforcement and compliance mechanisms, methods of achieving the targets and a risk of unjustified spending from an increased budget. We can learn something from experiences of other countries, especially the US, not to translate their exact methods but to see the merit in their action for clean air.

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