Friday, March 11, 2011

Tales of the toxic: will "Ash" Sunstein strike again behind closed doors?

As you may recall, White House regulatory “Czar” Cass Sunstein has been credited with putting the kibosh on EPA efforts to control hazardous coal ash.

(This is one of D.C.’s dirty little secrets, as the media obsesses on partisan Republican attacks on EPA’s climate authority. Folks tend to forget that EPA has also been under attack by President Obama’s own White House.)

Sunstein was such an effective meddler -- EPA now says any controls are off the table this year -- that he’s been labeled “Ash” Sunstein.

And now there are reports that “Ash” is at it again – this time as the EPA moves under a court deadline to propose toxic air pollution standards for coal-burning power plants. This is probably the single biggest air pollution decision that the Obama administration will make this year. At least for the near term. (A pending decision on national air standards for ozone, or smog, would also have major potential consequences for clean air, but probably over a longer time frame.)

If EPA is permitted to act honestly, every coal-fired power plant in America would have to clean up. If done correctly, EPA would require that the most toxic power plants be brought up to the standard of control used at the least toxic. (A number of power plants have cleaned up because of state requirements.)

EPA is under order to propose standards by March 16. As our report, “Power Poisons” noted last year, the electric power industry has evaded toxic pollution controls for more than two decades – even though it is the biggest source of toxic mercury and other poisons in the nation!

The EPA proposal has been under review by Sunstein’s OMB office since Feb. 19. We are told, by the way, that power companies and perhaps others have been lining up around the block to meet with and try to influence Sunstein and his staff. So far, these meetings are officially a secret.

Even though OMB claims to post details of all such meetings on its website , as of this morning, there is no public record of any such meeting. Why is there an appearance that Sunstein is trying to keep this all quiet?

The buzz in DC is that “Ash” is trying to bully EPA behind closed doors to make changes to its proposal before anything is made public. That he is trying to force EPA to “take comment” on alternatives to its preferred clean-up approach. For example, Sunstein reportedly wants EPA to consider a weaker requirement for control of toxic acid gases – a problem recently highlighted by our friends with the American Lung Association.

The coal-burning power industry has evaded cleanup for decades. And there is little doubt it will continue trying. Will “Ash” be one of its tools? Stay tuned.

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