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Clean Air Act 20 years later: Edsa still ‘worst place to be’

(Second of three parts)

MANILA, Philippines — Nineteen years ago, the then fledgling traffic aide Dennis Marcos directed far fewer vehicles through the Ortigas intersection. Now it’s a major bottleneck on Edsa, with buses, jeeps, utility vans and cars inching across the three-deck interchange every day.

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When the traffic got worse, so did the air. “The sun you can hide from, but you can’t escape the air you breathe,” said Marcos, now 39 and a traffic operations officer for the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). “Edsa is the worst place to be assigned [as a traffic enforcer]. It’s the most polluted.”

And as though to underscore his heaving chest and recurring cough, data from the state and the academe show that air pollution nationwide has been steadily getting worse through the years. Motor vehicles are seen as the biggest culprit, accounting for over half to two-thirds of the poisonous emissions since 2002.

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The diagnosis is clear: Lack of political will and fragmented interagency efforts have weakened enforcement of the landmark Clean Air Act, or Republic Act (RA) No. 8749.

Enacted in 1999, the law has failed to realize its promise as a sweeping measure against air pollution, as the Philippines still records emissions higher than the acceptable values.

Social justice

For Marcos and others who are constantly exposed to soot and dust, this continued failure could lead to respiratory complications, even death.

“Air pollution is a matter of social justice,” said Dr. Mylene Cayetano, head of the Environmental Pollution Studies Laboratory at the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology.

“Clean air has to be asserted as a basic human right. It’s a health agenda, and that’s where politics and governance should kick in,” she said. “If we’re not affected, we don’t care. But people die early and are disabled at an early age because of air pollution.”

Part of the problem is that the burden of implementing RA 8749 falls squarely on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said engineer Jundy del Socorro, officer in charge of the Air Quality Management Section (AQMS) under the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB).

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Ultimately, the law aims to lower the emissions of particulate matter (PM) and total suspended particulates (TSP) to within air quality standards. Both PM and TSP are pollutants that harm both human health and the environment.

The DENR stands as the lead agency, with the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Transportation (DOTr), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Health sharing the responsibility in enforcing the law.

The DENR releases its air quality monitoring report every three years to assess emission sources and concentration, among others. Data are provided by the monitoring systems that assess PM and TSP levels nationwide.

Yet beneath the seeming ministerial compliance is a flawed system plagued by malfunctioning or poorly maintained monitoring systems and by lack of personnel.

Nonfunctional stations

The AQMS showed that only 21 of 27 stations monitoring both PM2.5 and PM10 in Metro Manila and adjacent provinces were “functional.” Only eight are capable of recording both.

Both particulate matters need close monitoring, especially since they are invisible to the naked eye. The much smaller PM2.5 present a bigger challenge as they can easily enter the nose and throat and make their way to the lungs and even the circulatory system.

Clean Air Act 20 years later: Edsa still ‘worst place to be’In Metro Manila, where the emissions are highest nationwide due to the volume of vehicles, the stations that supposedly monitor both particulates and gases—including carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides—have all fallen into disuse.

At press time, not one of the stations located in various cities in the National Capital Region (NCR) is functional.

Del Socorro cites a number of reasons. Some involve location, like the station on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City that needs to be moved out because of the ongoing construction of the Metro Rail Transit 7. Others involve problems with calibration, as some gases needed for the analyzers had arrived late due to issues involving procurement.

Maintaining these stations is also no easy task. Repair of the expensive equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of pesos. Lack of personnel slows down the process, with only four technicians under the AQMS servicing over 120 stations scattered nationwide.

Del Socorro said his office was still defending the hefty budget necessary for the stations. “As far as I know, not all of it has been approved … We need the support of the office, but we also have to move forward and repair and work with what we can,” he said.

The Air Quality Management Fund established under RA 8749’s implementing rules and regulations to bankroll research and monitoring of air pollution cases is perennially short, at times even completely empty.

Enormous task

This was true in 2012 and 2013, although intensified crackdowns against polluters (smoke-belchers, factories, etc.) helped shore up revenue for the fund in the last five years.

These issues cripple the DENR in crunching data to help craft policy, said Alberto Suansing, secretary general of the Philippine Global Road Safety Partnership.

“Air quality is such an enormous task but you need the budget and the logistics to accomplish your mandate,” he said. “Lack of data is partly why enforcement of the law is spotty.”

Still, what’s clearest from the DENR’s triannual reports is that mobile sources are the biggest contributor to air pollution.

“The DENR often gets the blame [for the worsening air quality] because [it doesn’t] regulate or [it has] a failed monitoring system. But what is the root cause? It’s the transport sector. And isn’t the [DOTr] responsible for the transport sector?” Cayetano said.

Section 21 of RA 8749 states that the DOTr, along with the DTI, should implement emission standards through motor vehicle inspection systems and accrediting private emissions testing centers (PETCs).

Monitoring of PETCs is done by a composite team composed of the DOTr through the Land Transportation Office (LTO), DTI and DENR.

But some smoke-belching vehicles still pass the registration process at the LTO because some PETCs manipulate photos of vehicles that never went through testing. Lack of personnel again haunts this process as it hampers consistent monitoring, leaving the centers to operate almost entirely in good faith.

Proof of the system’s failure to regulate smoke-belchers before they head out to the streets are the continued apprehensions by the Anti-Smoke Belching Unit, done in cooperation with the MMDA and local government units.

AQMS data show that 24,266 of a total of 35,849 vehicles, or about 67 percent, failed their emissions test in 2018.

Owners also do not maintain their vehicles regularly, thus increasing emissions, said Suansing, a former chair of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.

Efforts undone

At present, the DOTr, through its traffic superbody i-ACT, is intensifying a crackdown on smoke-belching vehicles, said i-ACT deputy director Elmer Argano in an earlier interview.

The DOTr is also pushing for the overhaul of all public utility vehicles to shift to Euro-4 compliant vehicles by 2020—a transition that will supposedly lead to better air quality. But its efforts to cut emissions were partly undone last year by the DOE’s recent move to again allow the sale of Euro-2 diesel, which has far more PM than Euro-4.

The backtracking was a counterinflationary measure enforced after food and fuel prices shot up. But even when prices relaxed, the DOE has yet to ban it again.

The contradictory policies of government agencies illustrate the lack of coordination among them in enforcing RA 8749.

“The laws in place are OK. But enforcement and communication remain the issue,” said Domingo Clemente, EMB director of the DENR-NCR.

With the policies in place and programs laid out, bureaucratic challenges “hamper [our] performance,” Clemente said. “[The challenge] for government officials is finding the balance between development, sustainability, protocols and fast action,” he said. —With a report from Jacob Lazaro

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TAGS: Air pollution, Clean Air Act, Edsa, Metro Manila traffic, MMDA
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