Thursday, May 01, 2008

EPA dangles prospect of tougher lead standard, but hedges its bets

Like a Kentucky Derby contender that came up lame, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson was a late scratch at his own press conference today to discuss a proposed tougher standard for lead concentrations in the air.

As you may know, the lead standard hasn’t been updated since 1978. And we know now that virtually any level of lead in the air can get into the blood stream, leading to possible brain damage for children and other bad health effects. EPA is under a court order to issue a final new standard by September of this year.

EPA’s science advisers, ignored by Johnson on earlier decisions involving particle soot and ozone, took a strong stand in this case – not only calling for a tough new standard but faulting the process under which EPA conducted this review. (The process was changed by deputy EPA head Marcus Peacock, who was the primary speaker today.) See below for what the scientists recommended.

EPA put forward its own plan today.

Although at first glance this looks promising, EPA’s proposal has all the makings of a bait and switch.

The agency proposed a range of options, including both possibly tougher than and certainly weaker than what the scientists had unanimously recommended. The weaker end of the range would allow at least 50 percent more pollution than the scientists unanimously recommended. (The scientists said the UPPER limit should be 0.2, and did not specify a lower level; EPA today recommended a range of 0.1 to 0.3, though it said it would also take comment on both stronger and weaker alternatives).

Note there is a possible bit of statistical trickery here: EPA said in its fact sheet
that it might continue the current practice of determining compliance by averaging concentrations on a three-month basis. The science advisers called for compliance to be averaged on a tougher monthly basis. I don’t know offhand how the lower end of EPA’s proposed range compares to the scientists’ plan if the compliance averaging is different. EPA did not mention this in its press call.

You may recall that EPA also proposed a range in its recent ozone standard, only to abandon the tougher end of the spectrum and adopt the weakest part of the recommended range. If past is prologue, EPA may do the same thing here.

We remain concerned that once again the Bush administration may ignore science in a major decision involving public health.


Here’s what EPA’s science advisers recommended (in a January 22, 2008 letter) : The Committee unanimously and fully supports Agency staff’s scientific analyses in recommending the need to substantially lower the level of the primary (public-health based) Lead NAAQS, to an upper bound of no higher than 0.2 μg/m3 with a monthly averaging time. The CASAC is also unanimous in its recommendation that the secondary (public-welfare based) standard for lead needs to be substantially lowered to a level at least as low as the recommended primary NAAQS for Lead. However, the CASAC finds the ANPR for the Lead NAAQS to be both completely unsuitable and inadequate as a basis for rulemaking, in that it does not provide the underlying scientific justification for the range of options for standard-setting that the Agency is currently considering.

One final note: There seem to be irregularities in the process here: the White House web site makes no mention of OMB review of this plan, even though there is an EPA memo in the docket complaining about OMB-convened meetings that appear to have delayed this proposal.

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