Statement of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)
February 5, 1997
Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property, and Nuclear Safety

Thank you, Senator Inhofe.

Congratulations on your subcommittee chairmanship. I see that you have decided to slowly ease your way into the job, by starting with a small, simple, noncontroversial subject.

In fact, as the keen interest in today's hearing demonstrates, we are considering an issue of great significance.

The Clean Air Act has been a huge success. It may be this Committee's single most significant accomplishment.

Since the Act became law in 1970, the population of the United States has grown by about 25 percent, and the size of our economy has doubled. During the same time, our air has actually gotten cleaner. In some cases, a lot cleaner.

Air pollution from carbon monoxide has fallen by 28 percent. From sulfur dioxide, by 41 percent. From particulates, by 79 percent. And from lead, by 98 percent.

A major reason for this success has been the program of National Ambient Air Quality Standards. It may sound arcane.

But the basic idea is pretty simple. Before 1970, we had a federal air pollution program. But it wasn't working. One reason was that air pollution standards were determined by balancing public health and economic feasibility.

The principal author of the Clean Air Act, Senator Muskie, put it this way:

"The concept of economic feasibility had become an excuse for doing nothing, and we agreed that the dangers to health from dirty air were sufficiently great that regulations should be based on the degree of control needed to protect public health.

So, in the Clean Air Act of 1970, Congress remedied that defect and established a two-step system.

As a first step, the Environmental Protection Agency establishes national air quality standards at the level that is necessary, in the words of the statute, to "protect public health" with an "adequate margin of safety."

Then, as a second step, states write implementation plans. When they do, they have the flexibility to consider a variety of factors, including costs. A state can, for example, decide that it makes more sense to achieve reductions from a few large industrial sources of pollution than from a lot of small sources like dry cleaners and print shops.

Over the years, this two-step approach has kept the goal focused, unambiguously, on public health. At the same time, it has allowed states to consider costs at an appropriate point.

Furthermore, the Clean Air Act provides long lead times, so that states and industries have plenty of time to implement new requirements. For example, the proposed standards that we are considering today would not go fully into effect, as part of enforceable implementation plans, for 12 years. And if that deadline turns out to be too tight, Congress can extend it, like it has before.

So cost can be taken into account. But only after we've established a standard that protects public health.

To my mind, this system has served the country well.

That's not to say that establishing a health-based standard is easy. It's not. There are no bright lines. There is no magical level above which everybody gets sick, and below which no one does.

Instead, the science of air pollution is complex. Like all science, it is based on hypothesis and experimentation. On risk. On statistical assumptions. On estimates of exposure pathways. On projections from animal studies to humans.

And it is never absolutely certain.

But we cannot allow the absence of absolute scientific certainty to paralyze us. As the saying goes, we can't let perfection become the enemy of the good.

Senator Howard Baker put it well in 1969, when he served in the position that Senator Graham now serves in, as the ranking member of the air pollution subcommittee.

Talking about an earlier version of the air standards program, Senator Baker said:

"There are those who will challenge any criteria which lack final and absolute proof of a direct and causal relationship. But responsible public policy cannot wait upon a perfect knowledge of the cause and effect."

If we cannot achieve perfect knowledge, what should we do?

How should we decide, in the face of uncertainty, whether a new air quality standard is appropriate?

In the end, we've got to step back. Put the slogans and politics behind us. And size it up.

The question is not whether the science is perfect.

The question is whether, on balance, in the judgment of the mainstream scientific community, the standard will accomplish what the law requires: "protect public health ... with an adequate margin of safety."

If not, the proposed standards should be modified.

But if so, then we should work together to see that the proposed standards are implemented, reasonably and effectively.

So, Mr. Chairman, I commend you for calling this hearing.

I hope that each of us will keep an open mind.

This is especially important now that EPA has requested 60 more days to consider public comments. Some groups may be tempted to use that time to build their political case.

But that would be a disservice. Let's take this time to listen, to the physicians, toxicologists, and epidemiologists. Not to the "spin doctors."

Thank you.