Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
Word is starting to trickle out, and it’s a sad day for anyone who cares about science or good government—or breathing, for that matter.
The issue at hand is the Bush administration’s decision on particle soot, the most lethal of common air pollutants. As predicted in this space, the EPA has chosen to disregard the advice of the American Medical Association and dozens of other medical groups as well as that of its own independent science advisers, all of whom said existing standards needed to be made much tighter. Instead, the agency has backed a do-little plan more likely to curry favor with industry groups that are generous campaign contributors.
The administration will substitute spin for science, counting, perhaps, on the fact that too many reporters have become dictation-takers. Anticipated Bush spin: These standards are tougher than the ones set by the Clinton administration. The truth: Barely. And the Clinton standards were set nine years and more than 2,000 soot studies ago, when our understanding of the impact of soot on health was in its infancy.
The bottom line is that this was a decision based on political science, not real science. It is particularly egregious because the Bush administration likes to tout the fact that EPA’s current head, Steve Johnson, is a career scientist. Unfortunately Johnson has shown here that he is little more than a political hack in a scientist’s suit.
This story may not make the same sort of headlines that we’ve seen with tainted spinach. (For those keeping score, one death has been blamed on the spinach; EPA itself projected that its new soot standard would be so weak that it would permit 3,700 premature soot-caused deaths every year in nine cities alone.)
Perhaps it’s because we’ve been numbed by the crashing of seemingly endless waves of stories about the Bush administration’s perversion of science for political ends.
After all, it’s been more than two years since the Union of Concerned Scientists mobilized Nobel Laureates and other preeminent scientists to protest the Bush administration’s unprecedented abuse of science.
And the list of perversions is truly staggering:
The EPA axed references to global warming from an EPA report on the state of the environment, while an ex-oil industry lobbyist at the White House red-penned government climate reports to soften the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. (The official, Philip Cooney, left the White House soon thereafter to work for ExxonMobil.)
The White House suppressed information about the impact of toxic mercury on public health
Administration officials intentionally disregarded an extensive scientific study of environmental problems related to mountaintop removal in Appalachia.
The Centers for Disease Control was ordered to change its website to raise scientifically questionable doubt about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
That’s only the start. And the long list continues to grow.
Just this week, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., charged that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials tried to muzzle an agency scientist and prevent him from speaking with reporters about the link between global warming and stronger hurricanes. Also this week, the Congressional Budget Office basically stuck its thumb in the eye of Bush administration claims that its “just-do-research-and improve-technology” approach to global warming would be effective. BO concluded , in a pretty common-sense manner, that an emissions cap or tax would actually help us get a handle on this problem.
One of the most painful distortions of science involves the misinformation that then-EPA administrator Christie Whitman dished out in the aftermath of 9/11. Five days after the tragedy, Whitman declared that tests had shown air pollution levels near ground zero “that cause us no concern.” We now know that 70 percent of the first responders—thousands of police officers, transit workers and others—have chronic lung ailments. The Bush administration has delayed federal assistance for the victims.
Whitman is now being sued over her public assurances.
Maybe we should all consider suing EPA administrator Johnson for lying about the impact of particle soot. At the very least, it would be nice to put this “scientist” under oath, wouldn’t it?