While some might find it daunting to follow in the footsteps of their elders, the Billings family has turned their family members legacy into a family tradition. Leon Billings is commonly known as the chief staff architect of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Serving as the director of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution from 1966 to 1978, he was the principal author of the lifesaving healthy air legislation that has been enforced and upheld for the past 50 years.
The Clean Air Act was designed to protect public health and welfare from different types of air pollution caused by a diverse array of sources. Dense, visible smog in many cities and industrial centers prompted the passage of the 1970 legislation and major revisions made in the subsequent decades were designed to improve its effectiveness and target newly recognized air pollution problems such as acid rain.
The Billings family recently got together over Zoom – because this is 2020 – to raise a glass to Leon, who passed away in 2016, and remember the efforts it took to pass the Clean Air Act and how it has been reinforced and upheld over time.
Leon’s son Paul remarked, “It was because of the strength of the partnership between Senator Edward Muskie from Maine and his colleague across the aisle Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee that the bill passed Congress nearly unanimously.” Paul continued, “The Clean Air Act is so effective because it set clear obligations on the Federal Government to act to reduce pollution and empower citizens to use the Federal Courts to enforce the law. My dad, along with the Republican Committee Counsel Tom Jorling, were able translate the vision of Senators Muskie, Baker and others into a robust and resilient law that has protected the health of everyone who breathes in this country.”
And over the years, it was amended twice: President Jimmy Carter signed amendments into law in 1977, and then President George H.W. Bush strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990.
Paul Billings is the American Lung Association’s National Senior Vice President of Public Policy and has spent the past 29 years working to push for air that is safe and healthy for all to breathe. And his daughters Elizabeth and Katie and niece Kelsey have continued to herald environmental policy in their lives.
As a scientist in southern California, Elizabeth understands the health impacts of climate change firsthand through the increased wildfire season. Katie worked as a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, witnessing the melting of Nisqually Glacier. And Kelsey continues to defend the Clean Air Act through her non-profit work on climate change policy.
“Leon always used to say that one of the most effective and creative aspects of the Clean Air Act was that it centered on human health,” said Kelsey. “And that’s why the Clean Air Act is being used to address the climate crisis, because it compels EPA to regulate pollutants that ‘endanger public health and welfare.’ And the climate crisis is an existential threat to both our planet and public health and welfare.”
“The Clean Air Act became law because the public demanded it and Congress and President Nixon responded to that public pressure,” said Paul. The spirit of that grassroots activity is still alive and well in the climate change activists today, which include Leon’s granddaughters. “Each of you are part of a generation that prioritizes the climate and recognizes that in order to have water that is safe to drink and air that is healthy to breathe,” Paul said to Leon’s granddaughters. “We must come together to push policy changes to protect health. The Clean Air Act is our family’s business. Leon would be very proud of each of you for raising your voices to fight climate change and supporting clean air.”
Here’s to another 50 years of the Clean Air Act and the family that protects and defends it.
Join the American Lung Association in its celebration of the Clean Air Act as well as our work to protect this landmark law and strengthen our air quality. Sign our pledge to Stand Up For Clean Air and learn more about how you can help make a difference.
Blog last updated: April 6, 2021