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Bush Orders EPA to Weaken New Ozone Standards

President favors politics and polluters over science and public welfare

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On March 13, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency set new ozone standards that place stricter limits on the release of smog-producing air pollutants that can cause serious health effects and even premature death. But under last-minute pressure from the White House, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson made the standards significantly less restrictive than those recommended by the agency’s scientific advisers.

The White House also instructed the EPA to remove a separate standard designed to protect forests, land, soil, and crops from ozone air pollution. Research indicates that current ozone levels lead to dramatic reductions in plant and forest growth and cause adverse effects on overall ecosystem health. The EPA itself attests that ozone harms crop production and native ecosystems “more than any other air pollutant.”

Was White House Action Illegal?
According to documents released by the EPA, agency officials initially planned to set one ozone standard to protect "public health" and a more restrictive limit to protect "public welfare" (forests, farmland, wildlife, etc.), as required under the Clean Air Act, but Bush overruled them. He ordered the EPA to relax the tougher restrictions and to make both standards identical.

"It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment," said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The president's order sent administration officials scrambling to rewrite the regulations to avoid a conflict with past EPA statements on the harm caused by ozone and to prepare legal justifications for the weaker standard.

“For generations, a time-tested commitment to science and law has protected America’s health and environment,” said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for Environmental Defense Fund and a former attorney for the EPA General Counsel’s office. “The White House today cast aside science and law to impose its will upon EPA, leaving America’s health and environment behind.”

Here are the basics of the new ozone standard:

  • The EPA tightened the ozone standard from 80 parts per billion (ppb) to 75 ppb. The agency estimates that by 2020 the new standard will prevent at least 820 deaths, 1,400 heart attacks, 1,890 emergency room visits for asthma, and 610,000 lost school days annually.

  • By constrast, the EPA’s independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously recommended a more restrictive standard of 60 ppb to 70 ppb. The EPA estimates that by 2020 an ozone health standard of 65 ppb—the midpoint of the recommended range—would prevent at least 2,330 deaths, 4,000 heart attacks, 4,600 emergency room visits for asthma, and 1,300,000 lost school days annually. The EPA's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee and many public health advocates lobbied for the 60 ppb limit because children are more vulnerable to air pollution.
"Smog doesn't just ruin your view; it poses serious health risks, especially to children and senior citizens,” said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. “Study after study shows that to protect public health we need to significantly lower the amount of smog in our air. EPA's new smog standard does not go far enough to protect public health. We know that smog can still cause serious harm at levels below this standard.

"Almost half of all Americans live in areas with unsafe levels of smog, yet the EPA has failed to take appropriate protective action,” Hopkins said. “It has ignored the advice of the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and even the unanimous recommendation of its own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Once again the EPA has put industry before public health, and our communities will pay the price.”

What Does the Clean Air Act Require?
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review the science related to ground-level ozone and other air quality issues every five years and determine whether national air standards should be adjusted to bring them in line with new findings. The agency last revised national ozone standards in 1997. The EPA missed its deadline for reviewing the ozone standards, which prompted a lawsuit by the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice and other groups concerned about clean air. The EPA decision announced on March 13 was required as part of a court-ordered settlement.

The Clean Air Act requires one standard for protecting public health and a separate one for protecting public welfare, which includes “effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, man-made materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, and climate, damage to and deterioration of property, and hazards to transportation, as well as effects on economic values and on personal comfort and well-being.”

White House Intervenes to Direct EPA Decision
In a March 6 memo, Susan E. Dudley of the Office of Management and Budget pressured EPA staff to abandon the secondary standard for public welfare, in part because of the potential costs. Marcus C. Peacock of the EPA replied to Dudley’s memo the next day, saying that “EPA cannot consider costs in setting a secondary standard.”

Peacock’s position was not based on some arbitrary internal EPA policy. The Clean Air Act states very clearly that the nation must set clean air standards based on science alone. Furthermore, a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 2001, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, held that national air quality standards are to be based solely on science, consistent with 30 years of successful implementation of the Clean Air Act.

When the EPA stood firm for science, the matter was referred to President Bush, and on March 11 the president intervened directly to settle the dispute by ordering that the secondary standard to protect public welfare should be identical to the new primary standard for public health.

The EPA estimates that it will cost polluting industries $7.6 billion to $8.8 billion a year to meet the 75-ppb standard, but that the rule will yield $2 billion to $19 billion in health benefits.

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