The summer of 1988 was a long hot one in New York City. With the mercury soaring above 90 degrees more than one day out of three, by August the heat had become unbearable. Those who could fled the city for the shore or the country; the rest took refuge indoors.

It was a polluted summer as well. Hot weather helps spur the complex chemical reactions that produce urban ozone, commonly known as smog. The New York metropolitan area exceeded federal ozone standards on 21 days during 1988, compared with 11 in 1989, 5 in 1990, and (according to preliminary data) 8 in 1991.

New York was not alone: 1988 was a hot, smoggy year across the country, thanks to “a summer [of the sort] that would occur less than once every 25 years,” according to scientists David Fairley and Charles L. Blanchard, writing in the Journal of the Air Waste Management Association. Alarmed, Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act, which instituted a host of new regulations designed to combat air pollution. These regulations, which must be enforced by city and state governments, impose enormous burdens on both the private and public sector in re ions of the country with ozone problems labeled “serious” or worse, including the New York City area.

Under the Clean Air Act, many companies in these regions are required to install costly antipollution devices or shut down. New buildings must be accompanied by reductions in pollution that more than offset the effects of the planned development.

Transportation is especially hard-hit by the regulations. Automobile emissions account for more than half of urban air pollution. But the problem is primarily caused by old cars; cars built since 1983 emit 96 percent less pollution than similar vehicles did in 1970. The air will continue to get cleaner as older cars are replaced by newer ones, which emit almost no pollutants. Yet the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandates that automobile-related air pollution be reduced by 15 percent after these expected reductions are accounted for. To accomplish this, New York’s local authorities may be forced to raise bridge tolls, shut tunnels during rush hour, and forgo road and highway improvements.

Moreover, gasoline must be reformulated by 1995, raising the price at the pump by between 3.5 and 15 cents per gallon. If New York remains out of compliance after 1995, another gasoline reformulation will be required, raising the cost of gas by another 25 cents. Gas stations will be forced to install devices to recover gasoline vapors at a cost of $2,700 per pump nozzle (nearly $50,000 for the average station). Garages that perform smog inspections, which account for as much as 80 percent of smaller garages’ business, will be required to purchase as much as $300,000 worth of new equipment, nearly ten times the cost of the devices currently in use.

These requirements could sink many small businesses. Yet because auto emissions have already been reduced so drastically, the new rules can have little effect on air quality. With the dramatic reductions in pollution already behind them, regulators have reached the point of diminishing returns—eliminating the remaining ozone will cost many times more than the amount spent over the last twenty years. While the EPA shies away from such utilitarian calculations, few inside or outside the bureaucracy expect that the newest, harshest rules will yield noticeable improvements in air quality at any price.

The problem with urban ozone, in fact, is vastly overstated. New York City is actually out of compliance with federal ozone regulations for only a few hours each year, even in the worst-polluted years. The EPA defines a region as being in “nonattainment” if any monitoring station in the region has four or more one-hour violations of the urban ozone standard during a three-year period. Even Los Angeles, by far the nation’s most polluted city, violates this standard less than 1 percent of the time.

More importantly, ozone is largely a natural phenomenon, more a function of weather—high temperatures, low wind speeds, and temperature inversions—than anything else. In fact, the smog monitors in the New York metropolitan area that had the highest ozone readings in 1988 were in areas of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Westchester County, where weather patterns are more conducive to smog formation than in the city itself.

Fairfield County, Connecticut, has consistently higher levels of ozone than New York City. But the city is subjected to harsh regulations based on the Fairfield readings because the EPA arbitrarily includes both in the same “nonattainment area.” Nationwide, the EPA has expanded its regulatory power during the last decade by consolidating regions into larger nonattainment areas, in which all localities are subject to regulations based on the readings taken at the worst-polluted spots. Thus, while only 25 million Americans lived in nonattainment areas in 1980, 67 million do today.

Yet during the same period, the air has actually gotten cleaner, both in New York and across the country. According to EPA documents, overall smog levels across the country dropped by 10 percent between 1981 and 1990, and the number of days on which urban ozone exceeded the federal limit of 0.12 parts per million fell by more than half. Of 23 cities surveyed by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality in 1989, 19 showed long-term improvements in air quality, and only one showed a modest decline.

When it measures smog, the EPA fails to take into account the natural fluctuations caused by the weather. “The effect,” according to EPA researchers William M. Cox and Shao-Hong Chu, “is to mask any long-term changes in [urban] ozone.” In New York, those changes are dramatic and encouraging. According to Cox and Chu, air pollution in the city fell an average of 1.9 percent per year between 1981 and 1990, once the influence of weather is factored out.

Temperature and smog are closely linked, as Figure I shows. The number of days on which New York’s ozone level exceeds federal standards fluctuates with the number of days on which the temperature is more than 90 degrees. However, as Figure 2 shows, ozone rates show a steady and substantial improvement when changes in the weather are taken into account. The ratio of high-ozone days to days over 90 degrees has fallen sharply over the last six years.

The EPA, however, relies on unadjusted figures over a three-year period, currently 1988 to 1990, to determine how far out of compliance each region is. Because the summer of 1988 was extraordinarily hot and smoggy, New York is currently considered to be an area of “severe” nonattainment with federal air-quality rules. That means in addition to the regulations already described, New York must:

* Impose far stricter limits on polluters, which are fined at least $5,000 for every ton of pollution above the threshold. The lower limits could make it harder for small factories, as well as businesses such as dry cleaners and bakeries, to keep operating.

* Enforce pollution rules on boats, barges, and other waterborne commercial craft, which produce minimal amounts of pollution.

* Crack down on manufacturers of consumer products, such as paints and solvents, that emit hydrocarbons—raising prices for consumers.

* Adopt new technologies for controlling nitrogen oxide emissions.

If the EPA were to update its data, subtracting the readings from 1988 and adding those from 1991, New York’s classification would drop from “severe” to “serious,” easing the regulatory burden on the city. The EPA has not yet formally approved its 1991 data pending “quality assurance,” a process in which the data are checked for discrepancies caused by malfunctioning monitors, statistical errors, and similar factors.

The agency, however, showed no such hesitancy in 1988, when, before the summer had even ended, it publicized preliminary data showing alarmingly high rates of ozone. 1988 was clearly an aberrant year, but the data were released early because of “pressure from people with an ax to grind,” including environmentalists and members of Congress, according to a senior EPA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. An EPA memo acknowledges that the data were “submitted to the Administrator on August 18, 1988, in preparation for his appearance for the McNeil/Lehr [sic] Show.”

The result of this environmentalist panic is a host of new regulations that will have little effect on pollution. The air is getting cleaner, and has been at least since 1970, primarily because technology has evolved toward cleaner, more efficient use of energy. Part of the credit for cleaner air is due to past legislation, including the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments. But those regulatory efforts that can be expected to help substantially, such as stricter emission standards for cars, are already in place and will continue to contribute to improved air quality as older, dirtier cars are taken off the road.

The EPA should update its smog data as soon as possible and stop relying on the unusual readings of 1988 to determine New York’s regulatory obligations. But this would not be enough. In order to free itself from the regulations imposed on “severe” nonattainment areas, New York would have to file a lawsuit against the Federal Government. During the time it took to win a court judgment, another hot year might knock the city out of compliance again.

Senior Bush administration officials, including White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray and Vice President Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness, are currently examining possible reforms in EPA regulations. They should recommend that the EPA institute a “fast-track” appeals process, so cities can get off the nonattainment list when air quality improves, without the need for costly, time-consuming litigation.

The EPA should also begin adjusting its data for temperature and other natural factors that influence the creation of ozone. Then New York and other cities, as well as the Federal Government, could gauge the long-term trends in air quality and formulate policy rationally, rather than succumb to hysteria whenever the weather gets hot.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next