Industry Pressuring EPA to Weaken Lead Rule
by Matthew Madia, 10/7/2008
EPA is finalizing a potentially major revision to the national air quality standard for lead, and industry has come a knockin'. On Oct. 2, several officials from the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) — the arm of the White House in charge of reviewing and editing new rules — met with several lobbyists from the battery recycling industry. That industry would eventually face new compliance requirements if EPA adopts a strict new standard. One official from the White House Council of Economic Advisors, one from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, one official from EPA, and another from the Department of Energy also attended. In May, EPA proposed tightening the standard for lead exposure to between 0.10 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) and 0.30 μg/m3. The current standard, which EPA has not revised since 1978, is 1.5 μg/m3. At the meeting, the Gradient Corporation — a product defense firm whose clientele has included the tobacco industry — circulated a 15-page slide show reviewing the scientific uncertainty surrounding EPA's proposal. Injecting uncertainty into regulatory science is a common tactic of product defense firms and industry lobbyists. (Public health expert David Michaels profiled this extensively in his book Doubt is Their Product.) The slide show is a veritable how-to manual for White House officials who like to challenge the conclusions of agency scientists in order to undermine environmental and public health regulations. (See the right whale rule for a recent example.) Lobbyists at the meeting also complained of the potential compliance costs the rule would impose. In comments on the proposal, the Association of Battery Recyclers said a tighter standard "will threaten the continuing viability of the industry." Fortunately for the public, the Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from considering economic factors when it sets major air quality standards. EPA must base its determination on health issues. Lead exposure poses a number of health risks for humans, especially kids. According to EPA, lead exposure can affect brain development and "can lead to IQ loss, poor academic achievement, permanent learning disabilities, and delinquent behavior." Lead exposure can also damage red blood cells and weaken a child's immune system. But that won't stop industry lobbyists from pressuring federal officials to finalize a rule weaker than what was proposed in May. And White House officials, never shy to circumvent the law, may help those industry lobbyists pressure EPA. The mere presence of an official from the White House Council of Economic Advisors is cause for concern. If EPA cannot consider economics, what value can economic advisors possibly add to the discussion? The whole scenario is similar to the events leading up to EPA's revision to the national air quality standard for ozone, or smog. During that rulemaking, EPA proposed a range from which it would choose a final standard. When making its decision, EPA faced pressure from industry lobbyists and interference from White House officials. If the pattern follows, EPA will ultimately take a step in the right direction but fall short of fully protecting public health. EPA tightened the standard for ozone but chose the upper end of its proposed range. EPA's staff scientists and independent advisors, as well as environmentalists and public health advocates, all agree the upper end of the proposed range for the lead standard, 0.30 μg/m3, is inadequate to fully protect human health. EPA is under court order to finalize the rule by October 15. Stay tuned to Reg•Watch for updates.