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United States Pollution Problems — How Clean is Clean?

a photo of a green field seemingly under another photo of black smoke and gasoline station pumps amid concerns about United States pollution problems

As a nation, we’ve come a long way from the days of rivers catching fire and the blackened skies of Titusville. By almost any measure of the environment, America is now cleaner and greener than ever. There are local anomalies and short-term aberrations that are numbered among United States pollution problems but, on the whole, we have been moving in the right direction of producing a cleaner, healthier, safer environment. Oren Cass from the Manhattan Institute claims we’ve made big gains in environmental health, gains we don’t want to give back. Is it worth it to become even cleaner?

In the accompanying video, part of our Bold Interviews series, Mr. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute makes the case that we may have hit an inflection point in our ongoing efforts to create a cleaner environment. He suggests that we have arrived at the point of diminishing returns. Early efforts yielded large and tangible results quickly. However, at this point under our system of constant improvement, the yields are becoming smaller and barely noticeable while the costs grow with every generation of technology.

In Detail: Oren Cass’ Bold Suggestion

Mr. Cass claims that, in the United States, we have a relatively clean and healthy environment. At the current state of technological progress, there are few gains to be had at a reasonable cost, and increasing stringency is becoming a real burden on businesses that seek to upgrade or expand their facilities.

His bold suggestion is to take a hiatus in the march to ever tighter restrictions and work within the current existing framework. In other words, we won’t let companies pollute more than they do now—thus, adding more to the list of United States pollution problems—, we can lock in the extraordinary gains that have been made. However, companies seeking to expand and grow would not have to build ‘greener’ than their current facility.

On United States Pollution Problems: How Clean is the Environment in the Country?

a portrait photo of Oren Cass amid discussions on United States pollution problems
Oren Cass – Manhattan Institute

Cass may have a point—take air quality for example. If we look back to air quality metrics in 1970, there is no doubt that air pollution has decreased dramatically and significantly. According to the EPA, aggregate emissions in 2015 were 71 percent lower than in 1970. And this came during a time when GDP increased by nearly 250 percent, vehicle miles traveled almost doubled, and the population increased by 57 percent.

Against this measure of economic growth and population increase, an absolute reduction in air pollution is a remarkable achievement. While there are pockets of the country where local issues persist, we have, as a nation, achieved cleaner, healthier air without sacrificing economic well-being.

Water quality is another marker of a healthy environment. In this area, the results are mixed, largely because water is more localized. Unlike air, which travels freely, water becomes trapped in isolated watersheds for an extended period of time. One industry can pollute a single river in one watershed, while 15 miles over the ridge the water may be pristine. This case makes it more difficult to assess progress on water cleanliness and health consequences.

On United States Pollution Problems in the Past

However, there is no doubt that urban rivers and ports are vastly cleaner than in 1970. The days of burning rivers are a thing of the past. Ships no longer freely dump and offload waste directly into coastal waters. Factories and cities must treat water before it is released back into the environment. These programs have greatly improved the quality and cleanliness of the water. There was a time when ports and urban rivers were so polluted that they were avoided. Today these areas are prime real estate for living and recreation.

The challenge for water quality has come in rural areas, primarily from the agricultural industry in the form of nitrogen. Intensive farming and livestock husbandry, particularly in the Mississippi and Chesapeake watersheds, has led to water quality problems. Agriculture has been less regulated in terms of emissions than factories—partly because factories and industry were regarded as the greater threat. But, areas that have extensive large scale farming operations have shown little improvement in nitrogen pollution, while urban watersheds have become cleaner.

a graph showing US Emissions amid discussions on United States pollution problems

Perhaps a Regulatory Pause is in Order

Mr. Cass’ idea to ratchet down the regulatory pressure is intriguing. Perhaps the time has come to rest upon our success in achieving cleaner air and water. There is no denying that the United States pollution problems have been lessened—thus making great progress on the environmental pollution front. If we simply pause and allow industry to catch up and adapt to the current regulations, it could well be a boon to the economy and living standards. Indeed, we can encourage growth without a net loss to environmental quality.

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