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State of the Air: Environmental Officials Use Facts to Preempt Activist Fear Campaign


The American Lung Association (ALA) released its annual “State of the Air” report this week, an event that usually stirs up lots of scary headlines across the country about the state of our nation’s air quality.

As in previous years, the ALA did its best to frighten the public with phrases like “life-threatening” and the continued use of the group’s discredited A-to-F grading system for air quality. But in general, this year’s headlines were much more subdued. For example:

Some of this can be explained by a concession in the ALA’s press release: “This year’s ‘State of the Air’ report is a testament to the success of the Clean Air Act, which has reduced air pollution in much of the nation.”

But that’s been true for decades, so why is the ALA conceding the point this year?

State Regulators are Fighting Back

The real explanation lies with state environmental regulators, who are fed up with the ALA’s scare campaign, and won’t let the group get away with it anymore.

This week, the American Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies (AAPCA) preempted the ALA’s report with its own publication detailing massive improvements in the nation’s air quality. But more than that, AAPCA called out the rhetoric of activist groups and the news outlets that play along when they should know better.

The report, titled “The Greatest Story Seldom Told: Profiles and Success Stories in Air Pollution Control,” doesn’t pull its punches, especially when you consider it was written by state-level air quality regulators. From the report:

“Air quality has improved dramatically since those days of yesteryear, and ambient air monitoring data continues to reveal the downward trend of air pollutants. It is, perhaps, the greatest story seldom told, and one that is certainly worth telling…

“As of 2015, combined emissions of the six criteria air pollutants for which there are national ambient air quality standards were down 71 percent since 1970. …

“With media more likely to report bad news combined with often apocalyptic framing by advocates and limited understanding of technical air quality information, it is no wonder that the public is often confused about air quality in their city, county, state, and nation.”

You read that correctly: State environmental regulators have called out the ALA and other activist groups for using “apocalyptic” rhetoric on air quality that completely ignores the facts. And the regulators blew the whistle right before the ALA’s biggest report of the year, when the group usually doubles down on spreading misinformation and frightening the public.

Even more remarkably, the AAPCA report worked. Consider the example of Denver, a city recognized as a national air-quality leader for cleaning up the infamous Brown Cloud of the 1970s. In 2015, the ALA falsely claimed that ozone levels in the city were higher than they were in the 1970s. In 2016, the group put a paid ALA staffer on local TV who claimed to be a regular citizen with asthma, struggling to cope with Denver’s air quality.

In both years, state health officials took the ALA to task for misrepresenting the facts. And the rebukes seem to have worked, at least for now. See what the group is saying now about Denver’s air quality, in a story by the Associated Press:

“Dawn Mullally, director of air quality and transportation for the American Lung Association in Colorado, said Denver has made great strides over several decades.

“’We’ve come a long way since the smoggy days of the 1970s,’ she said.”

Yet, at the same time, Colorado health officials haven’t forgotten who they’re dealing with. From the same AP story:

“Colorado officials were reviewing the report but questioned some of the methodology, said Jeremy Neustifter, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health and Environment.

“The report gave some counties a failing grade even if they met federal standards, Neustifter said. And the report assumes everyone in a county is exposed to the highest level of ozone recorded, even if most residents don’t travel to the site where the worst concentrations were found, he said.”

So where do we go from here?

First, let’s recognize that the ALA is still the ALA. A change of tactics doesn’t amount to a change of heart. Slicing, dicing and misrepresenting air quality data is what the ALA does. But when the underlying data tells such a good story, there are limits to how scary you can make the data sound.

Second, let’s understand that the ALA never stops campaigning. In this week’s press release, the ALA issued a thinly veiled warning to the Trump administration and federal lawmakers about any regulatory reforms involving the Clean Air Act:

“As we move into an ever warmer climate, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging, highlighting the critical importance of protecting the Clean Air Act.”

Interestingly, this puts the ALA on yet another collision course with state air quality regulators, because they are some of the strongest advocates for modernizing the Clean Air Act and how it’s implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As AAPCA President Sean Alteri told federal lawmakers recently:

“A strategic approach to modernizing the Clean Air Act is necessary and appropriate.”

So, once again, we have a credibility contest between environmental activists and state environmental regulators. Only this time, instead of debating the safety of the air we breathe, the dispute will be over improvements to the Clean Air Act. State regulators won the last such debate hands down, and hopefully federal lawmakers will remember that in the weeks and months to come.

About CRS

The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, a 501c(4) advocacy, research, education and networking organization dedicated to protecting small business and promoting entrepreneurship. For twenty-three years, SBE Council has worked to educate elected officials, policymakers, business leaders and the public about policies that enable business start-up and growth.