The Sky's the Limit

Stop wheezing and cheer up. A front group finds a bright spin on our brown air.

Throughout the long presidential campaign, television viewers in swing states like Washington and Oregon were bombarded with advertisements exposing the awful air pollution in Houston. Murky shots of our smog-encrusted skyline flashed by as an announcer solemnly asked whether voters wanted George W. Bush to bring Houston's kind of air to shining jewels such as Seattle.

Maybe those nasty Democrats would like to take back all that rhetoric now. Houston, it turns out, is enjoying an awe-inspiring, pride-inducing, lung-cleansing renaissance of (cough, cough) clean air.

At least, it is according to the folks at the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based group that by its name alone obviously knows what it's talking about when it comes to clear air. And progress.

FCAP has conducted a survey of the nation's metropolitan areas and put together a list of the 20 Most Improved when it comes to clean air. It then sent out tailored press releases, the one targeted for our area carrying the headline "Houston's Air Much Cleaner Than 20 Years Ago." Houston was the 13th Most Improved city, just two spots behind Newark, New Jersey.

Breathing easier yet?

It probably won't surprise even the most naive reader to find out that the Foundation For Clean Air Progress is made up of organizations whose names don't exactly spring to mind when thinking about eco-friendly groups. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club don't belong to the foundation, but the American Highway Users Alliance, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Petroleum Marketers Association of America do.

And a sunny bunch they are.

"What differentiates the Foundation is the fact that we take a positive approach to discussing air quality," according to FCAP's Web site, www.cleanairprogress.org. "We present the situation in the U.S. from the perspective of the glass being half full, rather than half empty."

And that, according to FCAP spokesman Bill Buff, means spreading the good news about clean air, especially in amazingly great cities like Houston.

"Houston is a prime example of a misinformation campaign -- there's been a lot of talk in the media, especially with the presidential campaign, about how it's overtaken Los Angeles as the city with the worst air pollution. It hasn't overtaken anything; it's shown real progress. It's just that L.A. has made phenomenal clean-air progress."

In developing its list, FCAP looked at the number of days that metropolitan areas exceeded federal standards for ground-level ozone. In 1980 Houston had 72 such days; in 1999, according to FCAP, it had 46 -- a 37 percent improvement.

The study focused on ground-level ozone only; none of the other lovely additions to Houston's air were included. Not to mention that the numbers are somewhat skewed to begin with; FCAP uses data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, not the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission.

The TNRCC's count of days violating ozone standards is consistently higher than the EPA's because the state agency uses more monitors to check the air, TNRCC spokeswoman Karen Goelke says.

FCAP, legitimately enough, used EPA numbers so it could be consistent throughout the country.

But not surprisingly, some clean-air activists -- people who you would think would be brothers-in-arms with an organization named the Foundation for Clean Air Progress -- are skeptical of the study.

"Yeah, right, the problems are all going to go away if we just don't do anything more," says Neil Carman, clean-air director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. "They're just a front group."

Carman admits there has been substantial progress made since the early 1980s, thanks to such things as the ban on selling leaded gasoline. "But sometime in the mid-'80s, progress just dropped off," he says.

Although the number of days that exceed ozone limits can fluctuate widely from year to year, in 1990 there were 48 such days, compared to 1999's count of 46.

But Buff says numbers don't lie, and the public shouldn't be fooled into thinking pollution is worse than it actually is. "The businesses in our group have made significant investments that have led to this cleaner air," he says. "They've done a remarkable job, but the credit really goes to every American."

Thanks, on behalf of all Americans.

Buff says the report has gotten some good press across the country. A newspaper database search bears him out: "Report Shows Progress in Cleaning Air," headlined the Baltimore Sun; "Utah's Air Progressively Getting Cleaner," said the Deseret News of Salt Lake City; "Smog's Dirty Grip Easing" was the headline in the Los Angeles Daily News. The Houston Chronicle, which devoted a business column to a similar FCAP report two years ago ("Air Quality Better, Despite Perception" was the Chron's headline), limited itself this time around to an op-ed column by FCAP President Bill Fay ("No Secret That Houstonians Breathing Cleaner Air").

Eco-warriors have become resigned to front groups with noble-sounding names. (FCAP, in fact, was started by the same Washington public relations firms that gave the world the National Smokers Alliance, a group funded by the tobacco industry that tried to pass itself off as a grassroots movement.)

What also gets the goat of Carman and other activists is the idea that the "significant investments" made by FCAP's members were done with much kicking and screaming by those same FCAP members, who fought desperately against the proposed regulations that have helped make the air cleaner.

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