Monday, July 28, 2008

How EPA Got Away With It

The Environmental Protection Agency has never said the air is safe to breathe and never will--as clean-air expert Joel Schwartz has pointed out--because the day it does, is the day it is out of a job.

EPA writes the regulations under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 for the six pollutants—seven, the Supreme Court having just added another, carbon dioxide. Three times EPA has declared new standards, each one tougher, for ground-level ozone, first at 0.12 parts per million for one hour, then at 0.08 parts per million for eight hours, and in March at 0.075 ppm for eight hours.

This latest change, declares EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, is “the most protective” in history from air “simply too dirty to breathe.” (EPA defines as “unhealthy” anything above its latest arbitrary standard.) Each time the standard is changed, the new standard is always the most protective in history, since it is always tighter than the standard it replaces.

EPA declares that tightening the ozone standard will prevent 1,300 to 3,500 premature deaths annually. But they have not found a single premature death that was caused by air pollution (smog) or particulate matter (soot). (Meanwhile, in China , our Olympic athletes are wearing masks to protect against Beijing ’s polluted air.)

For years, authorities have been looking—without success—at data around Los Angeles , the elephant of American ozone, for people whose chronic illness has been caused by air pollution. Acute health effects, which are interpreted to affect smell or sight, are temporary, disappearing in 24 hours or less. Sensitive people can avoid them by avoiding physical activity or remaining indoors during the few hours in hot sunny summer afternoons when the ozone level is unusually high.

But this new ozone standard requires over a hundred counties still out of compliance and hundreds more that are in compliance to recalculate their State Implementation Plans to find more ways to clamp down on emissions from autos, utilities, power plants, manufacturing facilities, and whatever. By so doing, they force states to spend billions of dollars more or forfeit their customary Federal Highway funds. Decisions on how to bring states into compliance depend on their local areas. It is they that must devise more ways, lawn mowers, barbecues, car-pooling, whatever.

The tightening of the 1996-7 ozone standard is instructive because it shows the meticulous planning Administrator Browner had to go through to get questionable standards accepted. She announced the change late one afternoon in November, 1996, just before Thanksgiving, three weeks after the reelection of President Clinton, and after 4:00 or 4:30 when the national media leave. Congress had gone home and would not be back till late January. There was nearly no one around to ask or answer questions.

Why new standards? Both ground-level ozone and particulate-matter levels had been falling for years. Over a hundred counties still had not been able to comply with the existing standards. Hundreds more would be thrown into non-compliance. There was no need for tighter standards. What justification did EPA Administrator Browner have? EPA-watcher Bonner Cohen related the absence of scientific method to the 16th annual meeting of the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness in 1998.

EPA, ignoring the law, had failed to review the PM2.5 standard after five years. EPA’s friends, the American Lung Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and others sued it. EPA always appreciates them for their added pressure for publicity, and it gives millions of dollars to them to maintain the public perception of fear. This lawsuit made it possible for EPA to say it had to review the standards because it was under court order.

But not quite. The order was to review PM2.5 standards, not ozone. EPA then argued that the sources for ozone were the same as for PM, so it made sense for them to review ozone at the same time.

How, when both PM and O3 were fast falling, could Mrs. Browner justify tougher standards? By premature deaths. And by children’s asthma cases, which Mrs. Browner had to know had nothing at all to do with ozone. As ozone has been decreasing over the decades, asthma cases have been increasing, both in the U.S. and in Europe .

Premature deaths a justification for tougher standards? Where are they? Who has seen them? There were nearly no data. There were 86 studies on PM2.5, but only 12 of them related PM2.5 to mortality, and only one of those related PM2.5 to premature deaths. Mrs. Browner claimed that that study, which came out of Harvard, had been “peer reviewed,” but no one including the peer-reviewers saw the underlying data. That was not permitted by author and former EPA official Mr. Schwartz, “together with two other gentlemen, Dockery and Pope.” EPA’s Mary Nichols asserted EPA had not requested the data because they weren’t necessary.

Bonner Cohen suggests a reason for the change at that particular time. In five months, the Kyoto Protocol would be coming up for its initial agreement. The same sources were common to global warming as to air pollution. As Vice President Al Gore’s protégé, Administrator Browner was offering what could be support for Gore.

If the Clean Air Amendment law is rewritten, Congress should remember a) that ground-level ozone at a certain level provides protection against ultraviolet radiation; b) that not just benefits but costs must be allowed to be considered; c) that only those risks that are unreasonable should be considered illegal.

By Natalie Sirkin


James Marusek said...

In paragraph #6, did you mean to say 100 cities rather than 100 states?

Don Pesci said...

Thanks. Natalie meant counties. I've made the correction.