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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Particulate Particulars

Air Date: Week of

The Environmental Protection Agency can always count on a fight from industry when it regulates emissions of soot and dust called particle matter. But this time the fight is with EPA's own science advisors who say the agency has ignored their recommendations. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The stakes are often high when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates emissions of the soot and dust known as particulate matter. Tiny particles, mostly from burning coal and diesel fuel, are linked to thousands of premature deaths each year from heart and lung disease. But cutting these emissions can cost millions of dollars. When the Clinton administration's EPA sought tougher regulation, industry fought the agency all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, the Bush administration's EPA has a new proposal on particles and a new fight. But this time, the showdown is between the agency and its own science advisors. Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains.

YOUNG: Despite gains in clean air over the years, public health studies still show that low levels of particulate matter cut short tens of thousands of American lives each year. So public health advocates like Paul Miller hoped a court-ordered review of EPA regulation would bring tighter controls. Miller’s group of northeastern state regulators wanted the acceptable annual average for particle matter lowered from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 14 at the most.

MILLER: It means reduced emergency room visits by children suffering from asthma. It means reduced mortality. So small changes in lowering the pollution really mean big differences in health protection.

YOUNG: The proposal from EPA administrator Stephen Johnson would leave the annual average as it is, at 15. It seems a minor difference. But Miller says in his region it means missing a chance to protect twice as many people.

MILLER: So why the administrator went up to the edge but didn’t take that one small step further that would have been a much bigger leap in terms of public health, I don’t know.

YOUNG: It’s also puzzling to members of the EPA’s own Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. CASAC, as it’s known, recommended a lower level – somewhere between 12 and 14 – for long-term particle emissions. Congress appointed the diverse panel of experts to give EPA rigorously researched and unbiased scientific advice. Committee chair Dr. Rogene Henderson says this is the first time an EPA administrator has not followed that advice.

HENDERSON: I was surprised and disappointed that the administrator did not choose to follow our recommendations. We’re in uncharted waters here. This has never happened before here.

YOUNG: EPA’s proposal also would not regulate or even monitor coarse particle dust in rural areas. It would exempt from regulation dusty activities like mining and agriculture. Henderson says the proposal makes it sound as if that idea came from her committee.

HENDERSON: The CASAC committee did not say that. We recommended monitoring in both urban and rural areas and at no time did we ever mention the mining industry.

YOUNG: Environment and public health groups say some language in EPA’s proposal distorts science to downplay health risks and heighten uncertainty about well-established scientific studies. John Balbus with the group Environmental Defense points to public records showing edits by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

BALBUS: The edits raise doubts about some of the conclusions when in fact authors and others reviewing those studies did not have the same level of doubt. The result of that is the conclusions of those studies that would support more protective standards get watered down and EPA is able to justify taking a less protective stance.

YOUNG: A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, issued a two-sentence, written response: "OMB reviews rules as part of the routine regulatory process. The ultimate decision on rule-making rests with the individual agency."

EPA press secretary Erin Witcher says the agency carefully considered the science advisory committee’s recommendations.

WITCHER: We agree with CASAC’s interpretation of the underlying science on particle pollution and health. We had different views for tightening the fine particle standards. However, we are taking public comment on the full range of CASAC recommendations and we are also taking comments on going below what CASAC recommended.

YOUNG: The proposal is open for public comment through April 17, and public hearings are scheduled for March 8 in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Science advisory committee members are urging EPA administrator Johnson to take another look at their recommendations. One veteran CASAC member says if the agency is not going to use the science advice from its own science committee, he might resign. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



EPA on Particulate Matter


Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM)


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