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EPA May Abandon Health Standards for Lead Air Pollution

From Larry West,
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Agency Decision Could Bring Back Leaded Gasoline

December 7, 2006—The Bush administration may eliminate health standards for lead air pollution that keep the lead out of gasoline—and out of the air—according to a preliminary staff review released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This is one of the most startling pieces of environmental news to trickle out of Washington, D.C., in this era of jaw-dropping regulatory pronouncements, because removing lead from gasoline is generally considered one of the most successful clean-air strategies of the past 30 years.

Why Eliminate Lead Air Pollution Health Standards?
The EPA’s rationale for deregulating lead as an air pollutant is like a case study for convoluted logic. Basically, the EPA says that concentrations of lead in the air have dropped more than 90 percent since 1976, when the agency started regulating the toxic heavy metal as an air pollutant, and now argues that its success in keeping lead out of the air through regulation may justify taking lead off the list of air pollutants the agency is required to regulate. Huh?

Instead of the usual “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, the EPA seems to be contemplating the less common “if it’s working, then break it” strategy.

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who will take over as chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform when Congress convenes in January, urged EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to “renounce this dangerous proposal immediately” and said “this deregulatory effort cannot be defended.”

The Dangers of Lead Air Pollution
Lead is highly toxic and can cause severe nerve damage and impair physical and mental development, especially in children. Lead also enters the atmosphere from coal, oil, iron and steel production; lead smelters; battery production; solid waste; and tobacco smoke. Lead is one of six air pollutants the EPA is required to review every five years to make sure the health standards are tough enough to protect the public. The other air pollutants are ozone, soot, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides.

Over the past 30 years, the EPA has repeatedly missed the deadlines set under the Clean Air Act. While environmental groups have responded with lawsuits and public condemnations, lead smelters and refiners, and battery makers have all lobbied the administration to eliminate Clean Air Act standards on lead.

Dropping Health Standards for Lead Air Pollution “Dangerous and Idiotic”
Bill Wehrum, who heads the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, told the Associated Press that the agency is “committed to continuing to significantly reduce lead emissions in this country. That's what we're trying to figure out.”

But John Walke, a former EPA lawyer who is now the clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the potential change “dangerous and idiotic.”

That sounds about right.

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