Nov 022018


Since the industrial revolution, our capacity to use technology has immensely ameliorated and humans have drawn numerous advantages through them. However, there is always a cost associated with such improvements. Where sustainability is the nexus between people, profit and planet, the third factor has been hugely ignored during this industrial revolution to maintain sustainability. In reaction to such long-running mishap, the government had to intervene to bring more environmental sustainability into manufacturing and protect the well-being of the people.i  

Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990 consists of one such story where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took numerous harsh measures to prevent or regulate the toxic pollutants with a focus on air quality improvements.ii CAAA was already enacted earlier since 1963, however in 1990, stronger, harsher and more apt decisions were taken to further reduce the air pollution levels. The 1990 CAAA also helped spur new technological innovations that are closely tied to the background of sustainability. In order to understand the impact of CAAA 1990 and how it came about, we must delve into the history of the act, which includes the role of numerous leaders and major changes in the system.  

Summary of CAAA prior to 1990 

During the early 20th century, the pollution levels were rising and numerous catastrophic events were evident that were closely related to adverse pollution levels. One of them took place in an industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 where the heavy and thick clouds from the U.S. Steel’s Zinc Works and American Steel & Wire took over the entire town.iii This event in Donora is described as “one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation’s history” killing 20 residents, sickened 7,000 residents and killed all the vegetation in a half mile radius. A similar, even more catastrophic smog took place in London in 1952 which killed approximately 4000 and sickened over 150,000 due to an alarming rate of low-grade coal being used in power stations.iv  

The first measure taken by the federal government was Air Pollution Control Act in 1955 “to provide research and technical assistance relating to air pollution control” for which it provided $5 million per year for the next 9 years to conduct research on preventing air pollution.v This was a right step towards environmental sustainability, however, just research towards an emerging cause was not enough. Preventative methods of air pollution control were necessary. This was done through the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1963, where $95 million was funded to promote air pollution control programs and research into technology to monitor these measures. CAA was further improved in 1970 by President Richard Nixon to bring the public into the centre and to think about their health and well-being by setting up National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and New Source Performance Standards (NSPS). This was the first act that showed that economic growth and public well-being can be positively President Nixon also helped form the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the same year.  

Climate related issues and their context in 1980s 

The adverse effects of sulphur deposition or acid rain were evident in numerous industrial cities around the United States. In 1980, Acid Precipitation Act was passed by President Jimmy Carter to fund 10-years long research to quantify the effects of acid rain.vii With a change in government in 1981, the new President Ronald Raegan did not consider it to be a big issue at first. He realized this when he visited the border of Canada and saw the pollution drifting over the border. He assigned William Nierenberg1 to continue the acid rain research programviii and the results published in 1984 were eye opening, regarding acid rain as a real problem affecting the aquatic ecosystem, agricultural crops and forest decline.ix  

In the late 70s and 80s, ozone layer depletion was becoming a popular issues and was recognized globally. The pollutant causing this depletion was Chloro-Fluoro-Carbon (CFC), which was found in all the refrigeration systems at the time. This emerging issue lead to the Vienna Convention in 1985, which lead United States to install a research program to assess this problem. The conference proposed setting caps and targets on particular emissions, however, no consensus was reached.x An extension of this Vienna Conference was Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the Ozone Layer. This lead to specific targets for reduction and time table for doing so, of chemicals like Halons. Ozone Layer Depletion was definitely an emerging issue that needed to be addressed in the United States going forward into the 90s.  

The third rising issue was that the emission of toxic substances were introduced into the manufacturing without any proper protocol to prevent it. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 allowed the EPA to control and monitor the manufacturing processes and sales of chemical that could be harmful for humans to come in regular contact with. Asbestos was one of them that is generally found in construction material and is insolvable. As asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, it would get into the human system unable to leave leading to many kinds of genetic disorders and cancer.xi This led to Asbestos Hazard Emergency Act in 1986 followed by Indoor Radon Abatement Act in 1988 to make the indoor housing Radon2 free.xii  

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 

CAAA of 1990 brought some major revisions and reconsiderations on the act that was released in 1970. Previously the focus had been on research and control factors, however, this time, the focus was on permanently deterring the use of many harmful chemicals and creating a strong legislative procedure for the control of emissions at the state and local level. The CAAA of 1990:xiii  

  • Authorized programs for acid deposition control 
  • Authorized a program to control 189 toxic pollutants, including those previously regulated by the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants 
  • Established permit program requirements 
  • Expanded and modified provisions concerning the attainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards  
  • Expanded and modified enforcement authority 
  • Established a program to phase out the use of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. 

Due to the above reasons, the CAAA of 1990 is considered United State’s most influential modern environmental laws and one of the most comprehensive air quality laws in the world.xiv Since the act was introduced by President Bush in June of 1989 and passed in November of 1990, the process was lightning fast and took less than 1.5 years to be enacted.  

Role of the President George H. W. Bush 

President Ronald Raegan, before President Bush, believed in a free market control and was not an environmentalist. He even removed the solar panels from the White House3 few months after entering it. EPA funding was cut by 30% and many EPA employees were fired. xv However, Bush was not the same. In his presidential election campaign in 1988, he came forward with a pro-environment agenda along with many other notions that he supported, as he said, “Every American expects and deserves to breathe clean air.” Bush carefully chose William K. Reilly, who was at the time the president of the World Wildlife Fund, in 1989.xvi  

William K. Reilly was, at first, not confident in Bush as a pro-environmentalist as Bush had served as the vice president in the Raegan administration and been involved in some of the deregulations of EPA. Reilly decided to take the position under 3 conditions – he had access to Bush when he needed, appoint appropriate officials back to EPA and pass the Clean Air Act, which he had shown support for in his campaign. President Bush agreed to the first and third, and to some extent on the second condition.xiv President Bush went on to include more development oriented staff in the White House – Dan Quayle, Richard Darman  and John H. Sununu. On June 12th, 1989, President Bush submitted the clean air proposal anchored towards three problems – acid rain effects, air quality improvements and removing toxic waste.xvii  


After the initial proposal was instigated, the bill is sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee with 146 cosponsors, which highlights its popularity, on July 27th, 1989. Senator John Chafee introduced the bill in the senate with 24 cosponsors by August 3rd to be further referred to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. All this political activism lead to a floor debate in the U.S. Senate on January 23rd, 1990. Furthermore, a secret group discussion continued for a month among the senators in the following month. Senator George Mitchell came out of the debate with numerous policies that can be enacted related to air pollution, alternative fuels and rain provisions. In April and May, the Senators and the house voted for the clean air act.xvii  

CAAA of 1990 is famous for receiving a bipartisan support. From the House, there was 93% support with 401-21 votes.xviii Out of the 401, 247 were democrats and 154 were republic gaining an equal support from both the political parties.xix At the senate, it was 89-11, with 50 democratic and 39 republican supporters.xx This bipartisan happened due to the realization that past efforts have not been able to control the air pollution. Senator Mitch McConnell, a republican, after the election mentioned, “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”xxi  

In July, Senator Max Baucus was selected as the Chairman of the CAAA in July and all the negotiations between the House and the Senate settled in October, 1990. Final roll call voting was done in the House and Senate and the results were 401-25 and 89-10, consecutively. President Bush finally signed the Clean Air Act Amendments on November 15th, 1990 leading to a historic day in the history of the United States in support of environment and “that every American shall breathe clean air.”xvii  

Why was it successful? 

As mentioned previously, this was a one of a kind bill as it was directly linked to taking action towards the prime problems that the Americans were facing. The most important and innovative step taken in CAAA was to tie a connection between the federal government to the state and local government. As CAAA was a federal law, it let little room to modify anything at the state level. However, some states only saw CAAA as a minimum requirement and went on to provide even harsher caps on various pollutants.xxii  

CAAA was also very specific leaving no room for ambiguity. For example, EPA had set the Carbon Monoxide limit as to not exceed 9 parts per million over 8 hours or 35 parts per million over an hour. The research conducted through the CAAA of 1963 and 1970 helped in quantifying these standards. Anyone emitting the identified 190 toxins in any state needed to apply and receive a permit from EPA to continue. They had to install Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) developed by EPA so that the emissions could be closely monitored.xxii  


The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 has a huge history behind it. Many of the previous policies had set a stage for CAAA to come about. It took an incredible number of people to come together to make such a history, including President Bush, William Reilly, George Mitchell and Max Baucus. CAAA received a bipartisan support in the House and the Senate – demonstrating its’ importance at the time. Millions of Americans have benefited from the law. It set an exemplar for modern environmental laws. In current day of age, we must aim for such laws that have a nationwide impact while having a bipartisan support.  


Pranav Mohan

Change and progress are two words that define my character and my ultimate goals. I have a vision to bring a global change by targeting the psychology, because that is the easiest to change. My aim is to incur a self-progressive routine for myself and then help the people around me to progress themselves. In my perspective, walking towards a defined target should be everyone’s goal while keeping in mind that things don’t go as planned but still the target should remain unchanged.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On InstagramVisit Us On LinkedinVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Google PlusCheck Our Feed