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The clean-air bill that passed in the Knesset last week is an important environmental and public-health landmark. The legislation creates a broad professional framework, the first of its kind, to deal with all pollution sources and provides the Environmental Protection Ministry with the authority to regulate, supervise and monitor pollution.

The bill's passing constitutes a triumph for environmental groups such as Adam Teva V'Din, which initiated the legislation with determination and professionalism, and for the Knesset's environmental caucus, which played a crucial role in the process.

But the move has also exposed the weakness of the main player in implementing environmental laws - the Environmental Protection Ministry. Instead of supporting the bill and spearheading it, Minister Gideon Ezra demanded repeatedly to hold it up. This is because the ministry is incapable of implementing and enforcing the Clean Air Law.

The ministry is short of more than 30 experts to handle the complex problems of preventing air pollution, including the need to set standards and allocate permits to industrial plants. Only one ministry employee is in charge of transportation, which is seen as the main pollution problem in large cities around the world.

So far the ministry and other bodies' requests from the treasury for the additional personnel needed to deal with the Clean Air Law have been denied. It is not clear whether they have a better chance now that the Knesset has passed the law.

This means that one of the major environmental laws, whose counterpart has become a symbol of environmental protection in the United States, will remain an empty, meaningless framework. This is symptomatic of the government's attitude, as it repeatedly refuses to understand the long-term implications of the failure to deal with environmental problems.

The failure to implement the Clean Air Law effectively will not only have health and environmental implications but also economic ones. In addition to raising the cost of treating diseases or dealing with property damage, it will delay fuel-saving measures and the streamlining of production processes, which are by-products of effective environmental enforcement.

Economists today know that environmental protection is beneficial to the economy as well. The United States proved this with a comprehensive study on the economic implications of the Clean Air Law, which President Nixon approved in the early 1970s. The study showed that after the first stage of large expenses for preventing pollution, the economy started to profit from the law's implementation due to streamlined production systems, fewer hospital patients and less damage such as harm to flora that had been exposed to air pollution.

Clean air is apparently not only good for the lungs but for the balance sheet, if the required investments are made in resources and personnel.