EPA to Reduce Airborne Lead, but OMB Bedevils the Details

The Bush administration recently tightened the national public health standard for airborne lead, drawing rare praise from clean air advocates. However, shortcomings in the network for monitoring lead pollution persist, and a new requirement to increase the number of pollution detectors was watered down by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the new standard Oct. 16. EPA tightened the exposure level to 0.15 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), from 1.5 μg/m3. The adjustment marked the first time EPA had revised the standard since it was first set in 1978.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin and does not easily break down in the environment. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead. According to EPA, lead exposure can affect brain development and "can lead to IQ loss, poor academic achievement, permanent learning disabilities, and delinquent behavior." EPA expects improvements in lifetime IQ levels as a result of reducing airborne lead pollution.

Environmentalists and public health advocates who have often found fault with President Bush's clean air regulations complemented the decision to finalize a stricter rule on lead. The Natural Resources Defense Council called it a "big step toward protecting children."

Critics of the Bush administration's record on science-based policy were also pleased. In setting the standard, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson took the advice of his scientific advisors who had recommended a standard below 0.20 μg/m3.

In past rulemakings, Johnson has ignored the advice of EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), a panel of independent scientists, researchers, and medical professionals who specialize in the effects of air pollution on human health. In March, for example, Johnson set a new standard for ozone, or smog, higher than CASAC had recommended.

The decision on ozone came after industry representatives and White House officials lobbied EPA to leave the standard unchanged. Many feared the lead standard would follow a similar course. Lobbyists from the battery recycling industry, which will bear some of the costs of complying with the new standard, visited with White House officials to plead their case. The lobbyists presented the White House and EPA with material attacking EPA's scientific justification for pursuing a stricter standard.

Despite the praise for resisting industry pressure and setting a strong new lead standard, some dispute EPA's method for calculating the level of lead in the air. EPA will continue to average air concentrations over a calendar quarter. CASAC recommended EPA average concentrations every month.

Strengthening the so-called averaging time to one month would effectively establish a standard more protective of public health. A one-month averaging time would better account for big spikes in emissions. Conversely, under the three-month method, two months of low emissions could attenuate emissions spikes in the third month.

Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch told The Washington Post, "A three-month average would permit smelters and other lead polluters to belch high levels of lead periodically and still be considered legal."

EPA's advisors say switching to a one-month averaging time would be more protective of those populations most sensitive to lead's effects, such as those who can be hurt by higher, albeit shorter, exposures.

New monitoring requirement undercut by OMB

To address concerns that EPA's system for monitoring airborne lead pollution is inadequate, the agency announced an expansion of its monitoring network. However, officials at OMB watered down a new requirement, which could allow more than 100 polluting facilities to go unmonitored.

Critics say the Bush administration has allowed the national system for detecting airborne lead to founder. Currently, state and local authorities operate 133 monitors nationwide, according to an EPA spokesperson. In 1980, 800 monitors were in operation.

EPA used its revision to the air quality standard for lead to set criteria for the placement or relocation of new monitors. EPA estimates the new criteria will require an additional 236 monitors.

One 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 one ton or more of lead pollution per year. In a public proposal EPA unveiled in May, the agency signaled its intent to set the threshold between 200 kg and 600 kg (about 0.22 tons and 0.66 tons). An OMB Watch investigation of EPA's rulemaking docket discovered documents that indicate officials from OMB pushed for the weaker threshold requirement.

A draft of the final rule attached to an Oct. 13 e-mail from EPA to OMB contains language stating the emissions threshold would be set at 0.5 tons per year. The 0.5-ton threshold would have been consistent with EPA's May proposal.

But another e-mail from EPA to OMB sent late on Oct. 14 — 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 provides no such rationale.

The e-mail indicates EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock spoke to officials at OMB, possibly Susan Dudley, the head of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA reviews and sometimes edits drafts of agency regulations.

Dudley and Peacock previously scuffled over the aforementioned ozone rulemaking in which EPA and White House officials disagreed over whether to set a separate standard to protect plant life. Dudley won that policy battle after President Bush was brought in to arbitrate.

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.

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