The Clean Air Act dates from 1970 when many of America’s urban and manufacturing cities were struggling under a thick haze of smog. It wasn’t just an ugly situation—smog had significant health and environmental effects. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, which has been amended and strengthened several times, pollution levels of the six most common pollutants have been reduced by 70 percent. It was a remarkable success, and Americans enjoyed cleaner, healthier air even as economic activity grew by 246 percent. Yet the question of what kind of consequences would Clean Air Act violations yield remained.
Americans drove more miles, both individually and collectively. They built more stuff and generated more energy, and yet the air in the United States is much cleaner than it was 45 years ago. Is it time to celebrate our success rather than to continue to tighten the screws of environmental regulation?
Some would say so. Senior fellow Oren Cass at the Manhattan Institute suggests that we should be pleased and proud with our success in cleaning up the air over American cities. However, pollution efforts are subject to the law of diminishing returns. After so much progress, mere incremental improvements come with great effort and expense. Cass believes that while we don’t want to slide backward, perhaps it is time to take a breather (no pun intended) and leave well enough alone.
Other Details on the Clean Air Act
Bold ideas change over time. When the CAA was passed, it was a dramatic turn that improved the environment and quality of life. However, as the regulations get ever stricter and the gains become ever smaller, perhaps the bold approach is to reassess.
While Cass suggests a modest approach of locking in gains while balancing progress and pollution control efforts, many in the business community have had enough. So, in a somewhat reactionary attitude, they collectively support the withdrawal of the act entirely. And it is no wonder, even small businesses and artisans are reeling under threats and intimidation foisted upon them by regulatory agencies operating under the Clean Air Act. Not only is it impossible for them to comply with the regulations, but some also even risk jail time and fines if they continue to operate at all—even on a relatively small scale.
Was the Clean Air Act Intended to Send Small Businessmen to Jail?
The case of artisan Patrick Keough is a picture-perfect example of Clean Air Act enforcement that has gone too far—at least, in the eyes of many in his community and in the opinion of small business owners in general.
The Clean Air Act was intended to clean up huge power plants and industrial facilities that belched out dangerous pollutants at an industrial scale. It also regulated auto emissions, which had a large effect on air quality by sheer numbers. The Clean Air Act regulated industry and autos. And for a time, all was well. That is why it was hardly expected that a small business sculptor would come under the heavy hammer of the EPA. And it was even less imaginable that he would do jail time.
Repercussions of Clean Air Act Violations
Keough, 59, is a small business owner who produces large-sized fiberglass statues of animals and other objects. He recently produced 6-feet tall hearts for Nebraska’s sesquicentennial celebration, even as he was under indictment from the EPA.
The artisan’s troubles began in 2013 when a fire broke out in his workshop. He moved drums of fiberglass gel coat to a farm for storage after the fire. However, he failed to apply for the appropriate permits to store the drums on the farm. Eventually, he was charged with endangering the health of his workers and pled guilty. After nearly four years of wending through court, in March 2017, Keough was sentenced to six months in jail and one year of probation.
It is hard to imagine that the public health of the nation, state or even town was affected by Keough’s small business operations. In the larger picture, it is hard to imagine a greater waste of time on the part of the EPA.
If this kind of harassment of ordinary citizens is the only way to improve air quality, then perhaps Cass has a point. Perhaps our air is clean enough for the time being, that the possible gains have already been realized, and that further improvement can only lead to business strangulation, economic stagnation, and loss of freedom.