Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Clean Air Act of 1963, the first law to grant the federal government enforcement authority to regulate air pollution.

Summary of Event

On December 17, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1963 Clean Air Act. This legislation represented an important step in the expansion of the role of the federal government in controlling and regulating air pollution. Clean Air Act (1963) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution [kw]Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution (Dec. 17, 1963) [kw]Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution, Clean (Dec. 17, 1963) [kw]Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution, Clean Air (Dec. 17, 1963) [kw]Pollution, Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air (Dec. 17, 1963) Clean Air Act (1963) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution [g]North America;Dec. 17, 1963: Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution[07770] [g]United States;Dec. 17, 1963: Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution[07770] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 17, 1963: Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution[07770] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 17, 1963: Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution[07770] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 17, 1963: Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution[07770] Ribicoff, Abraham A. Muskie, Edmund Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;environmental policy Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy

The first laws enacted in the United States regulating the release of pollutants into the atmosphere were passed in 1881 in Cincinnati and Chicago. Over the next seventy-five years, many local and state governments enacted air-pollution laws, most of which were designed to limit the release of opaque smoke and particulate matter. With few exceptions, however, these laws were of limited use in controlling air pollution. Many areas of the country had no specific rules for the release of pollutants into the air. In areas where such rules did exist, they were often not enforced, in part because of fears that industries would relocate rather than take steps to limit the release of pollutants into the air, resulting in a loss of jobs and the depression of local economies. Finally, major sources of air pollutants, such as automobiles, remained unregulated by state or local authorities.

The role of the federal government with respect to air pollution during this period was minimal. In 1912, the Bureau of Mines began conducting research on ways to limit the release of smoke into the atmosphere, and in 1925, the Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. initiated studies of carbon monoxide in automobile exhaust. It was only after World War II, however, that significant interest in regulating air pollution occurred at the federal level. An incident in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, where a temperature inversion trapped smog over the city for six days, resulting in twenty deaths and thousands of illnesses, served to focus the attention of the public and politicians on the dangers of air pollution. A report issued in 1949 by the Public Health Service on the Donora incident highlighted the need for more research into the causes and effects of air pollution.

After several attempts, the U.S. Congress passed the Air Pollution Control Act Air Pollution Control Act (1955) , which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955. The act represented the first federal legislation concerning air pollution. The act provided $5 million a year for five years for research and training and authorized the federal government to give assistance to state and local agencies responsible for control of air pollution. The Air Pollution Control Act was extended for four years in 1959 and amended in 1960 and 1962 to authorize the surgeon general to study the effects of pollutants from automobiles on human health, but it was otherwise left unchanged. The Air Pollution Control Act, however, had limited success in controlling air pollution, as the federal government was given no power to regulate the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. Attempts to enact laws giving the government enforcement authority were not supported by the Eisenhower administration and therefore were unsuccessful.

Following the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960, efforts to regulate air pollution increased. In a 1961 special message on natural resources, Kennedy called for the government to take a more active role in controlling air pollution. During 1962, several air-pollution bills were introduced in Congress. While none of these bills became law, it was clear that there was broad support in both the House and the Senate for extension of air-pollution legislation.

In January, 1963, Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut introduced the legislation that would, in modified form, become the 1963 Clean Air Act. Ribicoff’s proposal called for increased funding of grants to state and local air-pollution agencies, the establishment of a national program for research on air pollution, and the granting of limited enforcement powers to the federal government, modeled on those provided for the regulation of water pollution in the 1956 Water Pollution Control Act amendments.

Shortly after Ribicoff introduced his bill in the Senate, Representative Kenneth Roberts Roberts, Kenneth of Alabama introduced a similar bill in the House. In a February speech on health, President Kennedy signaled his support of the proposed legislation. In hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution , chaired by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, however, it became clear that most industries were opposed to the proposed legislation. In particular, a spokesman for the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association Manufacturing Chemists’ Association called for the primary enforcement authority for pollution regulation to remain at the state and local level, with the role of the federal government limited to providing expert information to local authorities.

Despite opposition from industry, air-pollution control legislation passed the House in July, 1963, by a vote of 272 to 102, with most of the opposition to the bill coming from House Republicans. A slightly different version of the bill was approved by the Senate in November; a House-Senate conference committee met to resolve differences between the two bills.

In early December, a final version of the 1963 Clean Air Act was developed by the conference committee. In this version of the bill, Congress authorized $90 million to be spent between 1965 and 1967 for grants and assistance for research and training and for support of local and state air-pollution control agencies, along with an additional $5 million increase in previously approved funding for 1964. The secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW) was authorized to call abatement conferences for cases when air pollution emitted from one state placed the citizens of another state in danger and to put forth specific recommendations to limit the release of air pollutants. In cases where action was not taken to limit air pollution in a timely manner, the attorney general was authorized to go to court to force adoption of the proposed recommendations.

Unlike the Senate version of the bill, which stated that the secretary of HEW could call an abatement conference on his or her own initiative, the final version of the Clean Air Act allowed conferences to be called only after consultation with state officials and prohibited the federal government from going to court to enforce limits on air pollution unless requested to do so by a state governor. Finally, the act directed HEW to study the effects of pollution from automobile exhaust and from sulfur compounds.

On December 10 the compromise bill was approved by both chambers of Congress. One week later President Johnson signed the Clean Air Act into law.

Significance

The 1963 Clean Air Act was the first law granting enforcement authority for the regulation of air pollution to the federal government. The process by which the government could act to curb air pollution was slow, cumbersome, and inefficient, and in practice was seldom used. Between 1963 and 1970, only ten abatement conferences were called by HEW. Of these, only one case (involving a Maryland poultry-rendering plant) went to court. In that case, five years elapsed between the initial abatement conference and the final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended the release of pollutants by closing down the plant.

The Clean Air Act was somewhat more successful in motivating states to develop legislation to control air pollution. In 1967 alone, twenty states enacted air-pollution legislation for the first time, more than the total number of states that had enacted such legislation prior to 1963. Most states, however, made only a minimal financial commitment to controlling air pollution.

Following passage of the Clean Air Act, attention shifted to the effect of automobiles on air quality. In 1964, Senator Muskie held hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution in various cities around the country to gather information on pollution from automobiles and other sources. Based on these hearings, Muskie introduced a bill into the Senate in January, 1965, giving the federal government the power to establish and enforce standards to limit pollution from new automobiles.

The Muskie bill was initially opposed by President Johnson, who wished to give the automobile industry the opportunity to adopt voluntary emission standards. Following widespread public opposition to the president’s position, however, Johnson decided to support the Muskie proposal. The automobile industry also grudgingly supported the bill, preferring to have a single federal standard on automobile emissions rather than fifty different state standards. Following minor modifications, Muskie’s legislation, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (1965) , was passed by Congress and was signed into law by Johnson on October 20, 1965.

The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965 granted the HEW secretary the power to set national standards for automobile emissions. The first such standards, based on those previously set by the state of California, went into effect in 1968. The act made several additional minor changes in the Clean Air Act of 1963, including establishing within HEW a new agency, the National Air Pollution Control Administration National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA), to centralize federal air-pollution control activities.

The 1963 Clean Air Act and the 1965 and 1967 amendments to the act were only modestly successful in controlling air pollution. The legislation played a key role, however, in the transfer of air-pollution control from the local and state level to the national level. The laws also led to the more successful approach to control of air pollution developed in the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments and subsequent amendments to the act. Clean Air Act (1963) Pollution;legislation Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, J. Clarence, III. The Politics of Pollution. New York: Pegasus, 1970. An excellent discussion of federal legislation on air and water pollution prior to 1970, including chapters on the history of federal control legislation, the legislative processes involved in pollution regulation, and the results of federal legislation. Extensive coverage of the Clean Air Act in the context of earlier laws on air pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DuPuis, E. Melanie. “Who Owns the Air? Clean Air Act Implementation as a Negotiation of Common Property Rights.” In Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution, edited by E. Melanie DuPuis. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Explores the issue of “the commons” in the fight for clean air. A cultural, social, and political analysis of the concerns over air pollution, control, and regulation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godish, Thad. Air Quality. 4th ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: Lewis, 2004. A textbook on air pollution that also provides a brief history of federal air-pollution legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havighurst, Clark C. Air Pollution Control. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1969. Examines the legal aspects of air-pollution control. Of particular interest are chapters on the 1967 Air Quality Act and on automobile-emission controls.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurley, William D. Environmental Legislation. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas Books, 1971. A brief historical account of federal pollution legislation to 1970. Chapter 3 focuses on air-pollution legislation, including the Clean Air Act and its 1967 amendment, while chapter 6 provides an overview of environmental policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lipton, James P., ed. Clean Air Act: Interpretation and Analysis. New York: Nova Science, 2006. Billed, in part, as “The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act,” this book provides a summary of the act, discusses its implementation, and examines current issues surrounding clean air legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martineau, Robert J., Jr., and David P. Novello, eds. The Clean Air Act Handbook. 2d ed. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2004. The definitive resource for legal guidance on the complicated Clean Air Act and its amendments. Updated for this edition. Includes an introductory chapter on the history of the act and on its future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, E. Willard, and Ruby M. Miller. Environmental Hazards: Air Pollution. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1989. A sourcebook on topics related to air pollution. Chapter 4 contains a brief history of local, state, and federal air-pollution laws, and places the Clean Air Act in the context of later legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Switzer, Jacqueline Vaughn. Environmental Politics: Domestic and Global Dimensions. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. A history of the development of environmental policy by the United States and the global implications of such legislation. Includes a brief discussion of the Clean Air Act, showing how the act is related to the general expansion of the federal role in regulating pollution.

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