Technology-Based Standards Essay

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Technology-base d s tandards are the current legal basis for regulating pollution in American federal law. These new standards are more stringent and have replaced older demanding standards. They can be found in newer legislation affecting the removal of pollution from the environment. Until the 1970s, federal environmental policy focused on conservation as its approach to managing the environment. Pollution control was left to the states. In 1970 a dramatic shift occurred with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Environmental policy shifted from management to regulatory control. Pollution became a national priority. By 2000, Congress had adopted at least 12 major environment acts and had amended them numerous times. This legislation created new standards for each kind of pollution or industry.

In the 1970s, the focus was on obvious forms of pollution such as raw sewage, industrial smoke stack pollution, water effluents, or automobile air pollution. The standards for handling pollution were those that were the best-known technologies of the day. At first, the emphasis was on health-based standards, but with a mandate to the EPA to engage in “technology forcing” standards-setting activities such as setting timetables for improvements. By 1972, the Federal Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments mandated federal permits for all future effluent discharges to use technology-based standards. Two standards in particular were mandated: “best practical technology” and the “best available technology.” As knowledge increased about chemical pollution in potable water, and the dangers of carcinogens, public concerns increased. Environmental politics demanded the removal of numerous chemicals. During the 1980s and afterward, concerns about the cumulative effects of chemicals as carcinogens remained, but concern grew over the long-term effects on reproductive health and neurological toxicity.

Today, the Clean Water Act as amended employs technology-based standards. The act actually recognizes two other types of standards besides technology-based standards. These are the ambient or water-quality-based standards, and in a limited number of cases health-based effluent standards that deal with a small number of toxic compounds. The Clean Water Act uses four kinds of technologybased water pollution control standards. Industrywide standards are set by the “best practical control technology currently available” (BPT) standard. This standard sets uniform effluent standards for operators in a particular industry, no matter where they are located. This standard sets the national ground floor for all existing sources of industrial water pollution for each industry.

The Clean Water Act also allows for the “best available technology economically achievable” (BAT). This standard applied to a limited number or toxic pollutants or to nonconventional pollutants such as thermal pollution. A third standard is the “best conventional pollutant control technology” (BCT). This standard is a modified form of the “best available technology” standard. The modified standard seeks benefits from pollution control where the costs are applied to “conventional pollutants” such as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). The fourth standard is the “best available demonstrated control technology” (BACT) and is now the basis for judging the allowable pollution levels permitted in effluents. Technology-based standards have become more stringent.

In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act. It gave the EPA the authority to go beyond healthbased standards so that air quality regulations would be set by technology-based standards. The amendments allowed the EPA to relax standards in some cases, with the responsibility to regulate 189 specific substances. The law permits the EPA to add new chemical pollutants to the list and anyone may propose a possibly polluting chemical. The EPA will then evaluate the proposal. Politically, the change to technology-based standards work more in the favor of industry than did the older health-at-anycost-based standards. The newer standards bring a different kind of science to the policy issues. They reduce the political and economic penalties of regulation because the costs are considered.


  1. David Harrison, Who Pays for Clean Air: The Cost and Benefit Distribution of Federal Automobile Emission Controls (Harvard University Press, 1975);
  2. Noga Morag-Levine, Chasing the Wind: Regulating Air Pollution in the Common Law State (Princeton University Press, 2003);
  3. David P. Novello, The Clean Air Act Handbook (American Bar Association, 2005);
  4. Mark Ryan. The Clean Water Act Handbook (American Bar Association, 2004).

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