EPA proposals stir debate among minority leaders Tighter pollution limits opposed because of cost, backed on health grounds


WASHINGTON -- The proposed tighter limits on air pollutants are provoking sharp debate among minority leaders, with some pushing for cleaner air in urban areas but others fearful of the higher costs that minority businesses would face.

In defending its proposals, the Environmental Protection Agency has cited an American Cancer Society study of 50 cities, where racial minorities tend to be concentrated. The study found that those in areas with high levels of unhealthy air particles face a 15 percent to 17 percent higher risk of early death. Cities tend to be more polluted because of the density of auto and factory exhaust.

As a result, several members of Congress from urban areas have defended the EPA against critics who say the new regulations are too expensive for minority businesses to bear.

"We need jobs and economic development, but clean air is not incompatible with economic development," said Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Atlanta who has been one of the EPA's strongest congressional supporters. "If people are not able to breathe, there's no need for jobs anyway."

Improving air quality is especially important, for the poor and minorities in urban areas, Lewis said, because they face other ecological hazards, like toxic dumps.

Critics counter that these same people suffer when there are few available jobs.

"If there is anybody who is interested in clean air, I am," said Arthur Fletcher, director for the National Black Chamber of Commerce and former chairman of the Commission on Civil Rights. "But I also understand how unhealthy it is to be broke and unemployed, with children to feed and rent to pay."

Fletcher and Harry Alford, president of the chamber, joined representatives of the Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce, National Indian Business Association and U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at a news conference earlier this month.

All criticized the potential economic effect of the EPA's proposals. Their criticism stems from the cost of complying with the new regulations, which the Clinton administration calculates at anywhere between $8.5 billion and $60 billion a year.

Small businesses, Alford said, cannot afford the cost and would be unlikely to hire new workers -- a potentially serious problem for welfare reform, which relies on job growth to move people off public assistance.

"The black community for once has really got a focus on entrepreneurship," Alford said. "We've got focus, we've got momentum, and here comes more bureaucracy. It is lethal to the black community."

EPA supporters counter that business interests have complained about the Clean Air Act's costs since it passed in 1970, even as the economy has seen the most sustained growth in memory.

"The business community, whether black or white, has been basically opposed to certain environmental protections if they think it is going to cost them some money," said Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Black businessmen are no different than mainstream businessmen who fight this all the time."

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office declined requests for a statement on the issue. But it released a letter it sent in March to EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner. It says the city "fully supports" the proposed changes but urges the agency to allow flexibility to protect jobs.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has yet to take a stand. A spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, urged "a compromise in which the interests of business development are considered but one with an eye toward environmental justice."

Pub Date: 6/16/97

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