The Smog Pushers

You'll gag when these lobbyists open their mouths to speak up for air pollution.

| Tue Jul. 15, 1997 2:00 AM EDT

It's a bad day for smog -- but the smog lobby isn't giving up yet. This week the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize new rules to cut nationwide ground-level ozone by up to one-third, and to regulate small airborne particles linked to asthma, heart disease and thousands of premature deaths -- particles that come from industrial smokestacks and diesel engines in trucks and buses.

When President Clinton endorsed the new rules last month, he tried to appease industry critics by pointing out that the rules might not be fully implemented until 2009. Industry is not appeased. In an unusual display of long-term planning, the polluters a re moving forward with a multi-million dollar campaign to kill the new rules.

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Beginning in 1995, a coalition including the American Petroleum Institute, American Trucking Association, American Bus Association, and National Asphalt Pavement Association set up the nonprofit Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a public relations factory which "puts a st rong emphasis on what people can do" individually to improve air quality -- and opposes new EPA regulations that require industry to clean up after itself. FCAP is headquartered in the W ashington offices of PR giant Burson-Marsteller, which in the past has brought us such pulmonary-friendly efforts as the tobacco industry-funded National Smokers Alliance.

That was a tame first step. In October 1996 the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) formed a more bare-knuckled lobbying group called the Air Quality Standards Coalition (AQSC), to try and stop the new EPA regs. Its 600 members include the America n Petroleum Institute, American Automobile Manufacturers Association, Chevron, DuPont, and Geneva Steel. Heading the coalition is former Bush presidental counsel C. Boyden Gray and former Reagan EPA official Joseph Cannon. Both work for Utah's Geneva Stee l, whose pollution was linked in a landmark 1992 study to hospitalizations resulting from particulates in the air.

Gray is also chairman of the $11 million Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), a nonprofit free-market think tank founded in 1984 and active in the anti-environmental backlash. Since conferring with corporate lobbyists at NA M headquarters in April 1996, CSE has gotten out front in attacking EPA's clean air rules.

The transcript of one CSE radio ad reads in part:

Voice 1: Hey Dad!
Voice 2: Hi, son, how's the new job?
Voice 1: I'm worried. It's the impact those proposed EPA air quality regulations will have on my job. You're a doctor. What do you make of the health claims from the EPA?
Voice 1: Son, they just don't have the science to back 'em up.

Turns out that "Dad" isn't just playing the role of a doctor but of a pediatrician -- a pediatrician who's convinced childhood asthma has nothing to do with industrial pollution.

If CSE's phony dialogue sounds too cynical to be true, consider this real-world quote from an unnamed oil lobbyist in the National Journal, describing how people can protect themselves from high ozone levels. "They can avoid jogging," the lobbyist suggests. "Asthmatic kids need not go out and ride their bicycles."

Despite Clinton's endorsement of the new rules, industry continues the campaign -- which has cost some $30 million so far -- claiming that the EPA rules will bankrupt cities and lead to the banning of barbecues, lawnmowers, even 4th of July fireworks. The American Trucking Association has already announced it will sue EPA, while utility, auto and other groups continue to lobby Congress -- which will vote on the reforms sometime this fall. Industry lobbyists were also well represented at the recent U.S. Co nference of Mayors in San Francisco, where they got Richard Daley of Chicago to lead an attack on the clean air plan's "devastating effect on cities": If cities fail to lower their smog levels, they could lose federal highway funds.

Still, the industry campaign seems to be huffing badly, in part because of its spokespeople's ludicrous tendency to try and put a positive spin on smog.

"The effects of ozone are not that serious," says Richard Klimisch, an AQSC spokesman and employee of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. "What we're talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent. That's not really a health effect."

Unable to leave bad enough alone, Gerald Esper, another auto industry official, told the Los Angeles Times that the health dangers from small particulates are overrated since statistically the resulting deaths are of elderly people and others with pre-existing diseases who would have died within days anyway.

"People exposed to ozone actually adapt to it," adds Paul Bailey, director of health and environmental affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

If industry really wants to find individual solutions to improving air quality, it might start by advising its lobbyists to wear a gag when they go outdoors -- especially in the presence of reporters.

David Helvarg is a veteran journalist and private investigator, and author of The War Against the Greens: The "Wise Use" Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence.