Thursday, December 01, 2005

Power polluters mad at Bush cronies, and more...

December promises to be an unusually interesting month on the air pollution beat, even for those of us who are not in Montreal for the global warming talks. Heck, I bet there will even be some news!

So here’s a quick roundup of some highlights:

Vitriolic Voltage: For most of the past five years, the leadership of the Edison Electric Institute (the electric power industry lobby) has been in cahoots with the Bush administration when it comes to shaping a lenient federal policy towards coal-burning power plants. (The fact that EEI head Tom Kuhn was a college chum of President Bush and has been a big Bush political fund-raiser may have something to do with this.)

But now the sparks are flying at EEI hq. The power lobbyists are enraged because of an EPA analysis which showed that the modest global warming limits of legislation championed by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) could be met at minimal cost. (Needless to say, the same EPA analysis undercuts the embarrassing, do-nothing position the U.S. government is taking this week at the global warming talks in Montreal.) EEI is circulating a “critique” of the EPA analysis, including ham-fisted claims that EPA was “unrealistic” about cleanup costs.

But the power polluters are also challenging the very idea that cleaning up their witch’s brew of emissions would bring public health benefits, and they have turned this “critique” into a frontal assault on EPA’s ongoing review of public health standards for fine-particle pollution. (See more on this, below.) “EPA ignores the great uncertainty regarding which particles, if any, actually cause premature mortality,” charges EEI. “The relative exposure risk varies greatly among types of particles and implementation of the new standards without considering the actual health benefits of different sources and particles may yield no benefits…. It is unclear at this time whether there are any benefits for avoided premature mortality related to sulfate and nitrate particles…” If there is a problem, according to EEI, it’s because of “vehicular traffic.” (See more on that, below.)

Deadline Looming: As noted above, EPA is reviewing the existing public health standards for fine-particle pollution. The agency is under a court agreement to issue a proposal by December 20 on whether the current standards are adequate. EPA’s career scientists as well as the agency’s outside science advisors have all concluded – contrary to EEI’s assertions -- that the existing standards (set in 1997 but only now being put into place) do not protect people from such public health threats as dropping dead early. We are monitoring this issue VERY closely and will have more to say as we grow closer to the deadline.

Please be on the alert: this is probably the single biggest decision that the EPA will make regarding air pollution during the next few years. Now that EEI has shown its hand, the main question is this: will the EPA be influenced by political science instead of health science? Stay tuned.

Car curb? Another item to keep an eye out for is an upcoming National Academy of Sciences report on moving sources of pollution like cars and trucks. A quick history: polluters convinced one of their Senate darlings, Kit Bond (R-MO) to demand an academy study of the issue – and, specifically, to examine the existing practice of permitting California to set better-than-federal standards for most moving sources of pollution, and to permit other states to adopt the California standards. We don’t know what the academy will recommend, but we do know that the car companies and diesel engine makers have argued strenuously for limits on states’ rights. (Apparently they don’t agree with the power industry lobbyists that “vehicular traffic” poses an ongoing pollution problem!)

Toxic alarm: As many of you know, the Bush administration is trying to change the rules for the so-called Toxic Release Inventory. Under the Bush plan, polluters wouldn’t have to report their toxic emissions and other discharges as often. This has been one of the most effective environmental cleanup tools out there. A lot of “first responders” and others are understandably alarmed at this new attempt to cut a break for industry, which got little publicity when it first was rolled out. PIRG groups today are releasing localized reports on the implications, and our friends at National Environmental Trust are coordinating a media phone briefing starting today at 12:30 pm EST. Call Tony Iallonardo for information at 202-887-8855.

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