The Unfriendly Skies
December 20, 2005
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
The Bush administration is about to give an early Christmas present to the coal-burning electric power industry—while putting a sooty lump of coal in the stockings of breathers.
Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to unveil a proposal that will probably shield the power industry from further air pollution cleanup beyond that already planned. By doing this, the EPA will ignore the recommendations of its own outside science advisers and lie to the public about when the outdoor air is safe to breathe.
The proposal involves fine particle pollution, the most lethal of widespread air pollutants. Fine particles are often-invisible emissions from coal burning, diesel engines and many other types of combustion. Experts believe that as many as 60,000 Americans may be dying prematurely each year from inhaling these toxic tidbits, which cause health problems including heart attacks, asthma attacks and lung cancer.
For example, in a new study to be released this week, New York University School of Medicine researchers found that long-term exposure to fine particle pollution—even at levels permissible under current federal standards—helps to clog arteries and cause heart disease.
The EPA, by law, is supposed to review the science involving particle pollution every five years, and update national health standards if necessary to protect public health. The standards are the legally binding goal that is supposed to inform the public what level of pollution is safe to breathe.
In this case, the American Lung Association had to sue the Bush administration to enforce the law. Under a legal settlement, the EPA has to propose new standards by December 20 and issue final standards by next September.
Scientific knowledge has evolved considerably since 1997, when the EPA last set health standards for this pollutant. In fact, there have been about 2,000 studies which collectively point to the need to reduce public exposure to this contaminant. An internal EPA analysis concluded that thousands of people would die early even if the current standards were met.
As a result, EPA staff scientists, the agency’s official outside science advisers and many prominent air pollution researchers have all called on the agency to make the current standards significantly stronger.
Doing that, of course, would mean smokestack industries would have to clean up more than they currently plan to do. And so a rogues’ gallery of polluters—including the American Iron and Steel Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, the [diesel] Engine Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—has worked hard behind the scenes to undermine the EPA’s efforts.
No polluter group has worked harder to shape these new standards than the Edison Electric Institute, the electric utility lobby whose chief, Tom Kuhn, was a college chum and later big fundraiser for President Bush.
The particle-pollution caper is the latest sorry chapter in the coal-burning electric power industry’s domination over Bush administration air pollution policies.
You will recall that this is the same industry lobby that:
A spokesman for the institute conceded last week that it was urging EPA to make only “modest changes to allow industry to adjust to previously issued standards,” according to Reuters.
And that’s exactly what EPA appears about to do—recommend changes that on paper would appear to make modest improvements to current standards somewhat, while not requiring any additional cleanup from the power industry beyond what’s already planned under earlier, industry-friendly rules.
An EPA staffer gave the game away at a little-publicized meeting in California in late October. He unveiled a map which showed that EPA could appear to lower the standards—yet still not require additional cleanup.
The Bush administration initially tried to keep reporters from seeing this telltale map, but Greenwire ultimately obtained it after filing a freedom of information request.
President Bush has made much of the fact that the current head of the EPA, Steve Johnson, is a career scientist. Deplorably, it looks as if political science means a lot more to the administration than health science.