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Monday, June 28, 2010

EPA 10 years behind on setting guidelines for toxic air pollutants, budget gutted by Bush

E.P.A. Lags on Setting Some Air Standards, Report Finds

by Yeganeh June Torbati, The New York Times, June 26, 2010

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is 10 years behind schedule in setting guidelines for a host of toxic air pollutants, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general.

The report, which was released last week, found that the agency had failed to develop emissions standards, due in 2000, for some sources of hazardous air pollutants. These included smaller sites often located in urban areas, like dry cleaners and gas stations, but also some chemical manufacturers.

The inspector general also found that the agency had not met targets outlined in a 1999 planning document, the Integrated Urban Air Toxics Strategy, including tracking urban dwellers’ risk of developing health problems from exposure to pollutants.

Some experts said the failures were persisting largely because the E.P.A.’s Office of Air and Radiation, which is responsible for regulating air pollutants, lacked the money needed to meet its deadlines.

In a written response to the report, E.P.A. officials also said budget cuts had made it difficult to meet their deadlines, noting that “air toxics support has been cut over 70 percent” since 2001.

In the past, the Government Accountability Office has found that the low priority for the air toxics program and limited financing were in part to blame for the agency’s failure to stay on schedule.

Frank O’Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group based in Washington, said the inspector general’s report made clear that “the issue of breathing cancer-causing chemicals in city air is something of an orphan issue.”

For example, the agency’s last assessment of the risk of toxic air pollutants is based on emissions data from 2002. That analysis found that 1 in 28,000 people, or 36 in 1 million, could develop cancer from lifetime exposure to air toxics from outdoor sources. That number is an average, however, and people living in densely populated cities may face a higher risk.

The people most exposed, Mr. O’Donnell said, “are probably not out in the wheat farms — they’re going to be people living near where the bus depots are.”

Jeffrey Holmstead, who was assistant administrator for air and radiation at the E.P.A. from 2001 to 2005, said that even though Congress increased the agency’s budget when it passed significant amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, the E.P.A. still did not have enough money to fulfill all its requirements.

“It’s fair to point out that the E.P.A. has not met its statutory deadlines,” Mr. Holmstead said. “But there are hundreds and hundreds of statutory deadlines that the E.P.A. hasn’t met. Even though E.P.A. has a fairly large budget, it’s not big enough to do everything the E.P.A folks are supposed to do.”

In the past, Mr. Holmstead has represented semiconductor, aerospace and chemical companies as an environmental lawyer. He is now a partner at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, where his clients include oil companies and others in the energy sector.

James S. Pew, a lawyer with the environmental law group Earthjustice, said that the E.P.A. had the financing it needed, and that it undercut itself by moving money away from the division that specifically deals with air toxics. “This is a situation where the lack of resources is just not a valid excuse,” Mr. Pew said.

Some evidence suggests that there is now more attention being paid to this category of air pollutants within the E.P.A. The agency noted in its response to the report that for the first time in a decade, funds are shifting to the air toxics program this year to meet regulatory deadlines.


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