msnbc.com news services
updated 1/30/2004 10:30:06 AM ET 2004-01-30T15:30:06

Though some progress has been made, the U.S. government should do more to clean up air emissions spewed by coal-burning power plants and measure their human health impacts, an expert panel said Thursday.

“Despite substantial progress in improving air quality, the problems posed by pollutant emissions in the United States are by no means solved,” the National Academies’ National Research Council said in a report that notes both improvements and shortcomings since Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing the act, should take a wider approach to reduce emissions that cause acid rain, haze and respiratory diseases, said the academy, an independent group that makes scientific recommendations to Congress.

Cap-and-trade encouraged
The Bush administration has proposed that U.S. utilities reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury by about 70 percent over the next 15 years through a cap-and-trade system.

The report, which does not specifically address administration environmental plans, found that such trading programs should be expanded to cover multiple emissions, the report said.

Emissions from coal-burning power plants and factories have been reduced by installing high-tech equipment at newer facilities, but older plants “continue to be a substantial source of emissions,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the EPA needs to bolster its monitoring of the health impacts of toxic air emissions from power plants as well as off-road vehicles and heavy-duty diesel trucks, the report said.

“Current risk assessment and standard-setting programs do not account sufficiently for all the hazardous air pollutants that may pose a significant risk to human health,” it said.

The government should also weigh the effects of global warming when crafting clean air legislation, it said.

The administration has adamantly opposed mandating reductions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, citing the economic damage caused by compliance costs pegged in the billions of dollars.

Reaction to report
Frank O’Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, an advocacy group, said the report is a valuable blueprint, though he said it largely ignores actions by the Bush administration.

Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who has pressed for legislation that deals with global warming, said the report made it clear in his mind that "our system could and should be improved in a thoughtful manner to continue reducing emissions as quickly as possible.”

But Jeffrey Marks, of the National Association of Manufacturers, said U.S. companies would “likely spend billions of dollars complying with these proposed rules to drastically reduce emissions in a relatively short period of time.”

And the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a utility lobbying group, said its members “look forward to participating in the drive for common-sense reforms to the Clean Air Act.” 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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