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Ideas work where air laws can’t reach

By John Bartlit

We are a nation of laws. By nature most of us resent laws that restrict what we do. At the same time, I hear no one singing the praises of lawlessness.
The burning interest in laws misses a third option that is freer of pitfalls than either rules or lawlessness. The creative path has gained some notable ground on pollution problems.  
The approach can be described as “voluntary,” “pursuing ideas” or “jawboning,” if you would call it that. They all mean achieving better pollution control than the law demands.
More people of opposing views would find things they like if it were explored more. The topic is especially timely when tax money is tight, which is now.  
Voluntary improvements result from people passing around information and ideas aimed at getting cleaner air and water sooner and easier. Ideas come from poking into things.
A good start is to review the national structure of air pollution laws. How does it work?
A few pollutants are very widespread, because people use a lot of certain things, such as heat, power, vehicles, fuels and metals. The resulting common air pollutants total six – fine particles, ozone, CO, NOx, SOx and lead.
Exposure to these six, known as “criteria pollutants, is so common and diverse that a great deal is known about their effects on people and air quality. The studies are numerous and extensive enough to set a limit for each of the six in the ambient air judged to be safe with a margin of safety. The EPA works with each state’s air bureau to ensure the national limits are met everywhere.
 Studies on hundreds of other air pollutants are less complete, with data gathered on fewer people. What is known about each chemical is less than for criteria pollutants, yet knowledge constantly grows and is used to determine safe levels of risk for large groups of chemicals. EPA procedures set emission limits for these groups.
The task is large and perpetual and follows prescribed methods.
     Tax money pays most of the bill. In addition, groups like the American Lung Association channel donated dollars to health research. These funds shrink too in hard times.    
Enforcing rules is the next task. It uses still more procedures that are highly standardized at the national level. Standard manuals specify how to monitor air emissions, sample stack gases, analyze samples and report results. EPA criteria cover how often to test.  
Laws grow as prickly as a brier patch. Some state laws say they can’t have air rules more stringent than the feds. New Mexico has this constraint.     
All in all, legal tools are bound by laws, standard procedures, oversight, reviewed studies and formal reports, all of which add time and cost for companies and citizens alike.
So what is won and lost with voluntary change?
No one gets all he wants from voluntary change, the same as with laws. Conformity is not guaranteed, the same as with laws. Change is never finished, the same as with laws.  
On the other hand, if a company decides to cut emissions it can choose the times and spots that do the most good for the least cost and disruption. A company can implement a voluntary change in months that takes a decade to force through the legal briers, if it is even possible.
Speed in itself has value to society, agile companies, and air quality.    
Some companies will spend no money for cleaner air they are not forced to spend. But if, I say IF, a company volunteers to spend money for controls, I am sure they will spend it where they can stop the most significant pollution per dollar spent. Why do otherwise?
Furthermore, once the money is spent, the company wants the most use from the investment. Why not?
 I do not suggest voluntary control would work with no laws. Tiers of laws are the hobgoblins that make voluntary change rational.                                                                        
John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water