After White House Interference, EPA to Reconsider Lead Monitoring

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it may require more air quality monitoring devices to be placed around the country to calculate levels of airborne lead.

EPAIn October 2008, EPA tightened the national standard for airborne lead and set new criteria for the placement of lead monitors. The national network for monitoring airborne lead pollution has fallen into disrepair. When EPA proposed the lead rule in May 2008, it said: "In 1980 there were over 900 [lead] surveillance sites. This number has been reduced to approximately 200 sites today.”

One new criterion that triggers the placement of monitors is the amount of lead pollution emitted by industrial facilities. The new regulation requires state and local officials to set up monitors near sources emitting 1 ton or more of lead pollution per year.

Now, EPA is considering a lower threshold that would encompass more polluting facilities.

It’s no surprise that EPA has decided to reconsider, since the decision to set the threshold at 1 ton was foisted on it by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). EPA originally sought to set the threshold at 0.5 tons, but OIRA – the arm of the White House Office of Management and Budget responsible for reviewing and editing agency regulations – pressured the agency to double it. (Check out OMB Watch's analysis of the controversy here.)

An email from EPA to OMB sent late on Oct. 14, 2008, less than 48 hours before the final rule was publicly announced, stated, "[I]f OMB wants a 1 ton threshold, it would have to provide a rationale for that point of view." The e-mail requested "a technical rationale, and not policy views." The final rule provided no such rationale.

The change from a 0.5-ton threshold to a one-ton threshold could have real consequences. EPA estimates the one-ton threshold will apply to 135 facilities. However, the 0.5-ton threshold would have applied to at least 259 facilities. The change means state and local officials will not be required to place new lead pollution monitors near at least 124 facilities that emit lead. And no matter how strong EPA’s new exposure standard is, officials can’t enforce the regulation if they don’t know how much pollution is in the air in the first place.

In January, a coalition of environmental groups petitioned EPA to reconsider the threshold. The coalition called on EPA to replace the 1 ton threshold with the 0.5 ton threshold and criticized the process by which the decision was made:

The final decision on the threshold ignored EPA’s own analysis showing that the threshold should be set at a lower emissions level to better protect public health and marks a capitulation to pressure from the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”). The decision on the source-oriented monitoring threshold represents a triumph of politics over science – at the expense of public health – and should be reconsidered. 

Yesterday, EPA granted the petition and said it would reconsider the threshold. Avinash Kar, an NRDC attorney who wrote the petition, wrote on his blog yesterday, “I am hopeful that EPA will follow this great start by revising the threshold for monitoring lead pollution to ensure that children in all communities are protected by the new standards for airborne lead that EPA announced last year.”

Image by flickr user Joethelion, used under a Creative Commons license.

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This is a very important issue because airborne lead has well known adverse impacts on your health.