The Magazine

EPA DUST IN GOP EYES

Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By DAVE JUDAY
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UNLESS THE REPUBLICAN CONGRESS rouses itself and finds its nerve, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue absurd and indefensible new regulations next month. These regulations, devised under the Clean Air Act, will impose stringent new requirements on potential sources of ozone and " fine particulate matter" -- in other words, haze and dust. The regulations will thus gather under tight federal control a number of activities that produce, or could produce, the targeted emissions, from industrial manufacturing all the way to simple lawnmowing and backyard barbecues. Even in the annals of environmental overreach, the EPA's new thrust is extraordinary.


The new rules are set to supplant the Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress in 1990. Since then, the nation's progress in air quality has been strong. Cities have seen a 50 percent drop in the number of days on which pollution levels exceed safe-air standards, and not one city has experienced an increase in pollution. So why the new, Draconian measures?


The EPA's answer of choice is "asthma." The agency claims that its stricter standards will reduce the incidence of this illness, which is rising. This, of course, turns logic on its head: If asthma cases are increasing while air pollution is decreasing, how would a further decrease in air pollution slow the spread of asthma? As a report from the Centers for Disease Control notes, "No evidence exists that supports the role of outdoor pollution levels as the primary factor" in asthma. Instead -- and embarrassingly for environmental activists -- the real enemy of asthma sufferers is indoor air pollution, the unintended sideeffect of one of our previous national campaigns, for energy efficiency. Americans now work in buildings that are shut up tight, in which opening a window is often impossible, making a host of allergens all the more troublesome.


The most generous thing that can be said for the EPA's health claims is that they are an errant leap of faith. Ronald Gots, director of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine near Washington, sums it up this way: No regulations have "ever been based on fewer data than these"; indeed, the data "border on non-existent." President Clinton's own budget for last year called for research funding to "reduce the great uncertainty about health effects [as they relate to particulate matters]." And even the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee acknowledges that a "diversity of opinion reflects many unanswered questions and uncertainties associated with establishing" the new regulations.


Then there is the question of cost: How great a hit will the economy take? The EPA has pegged total compliance costs at $ 6.5-8.5 billion a year, a laughably low number. According to the Air Quality Standards Coalition in Washington, an alliance of business, labor, and local governments, the agency arrived at that figure by calculating, not the regulations' true costs, but political palatability. The EPA simply stopped tallying potential costs beyond the $ 8.5 billion mark, noting in fine print that some areas of the country would fail to meet the new standards even after that already- considerable expenditure of money. One private research firm estimates that the new regulations will cost as much as $ 7 billion a year in Chicago alone.


Another question: Which activities, exactly, and which sectors of the economy will be subject to the rules? About this, the EPA is similarly slippery. In response to inquiries from farm-state legislators, concerned about the status of dust stirred up in the course of run-of-the-mill agricultural activities, like plowing and planting fields, combining wheat, and filling grain bins with corn, EPA administrator Carol Browner promised that the rules "will not require a farmer to change the way he or she does her job" (a prime example of Clinton-speak). Industrial firms, she said, not farms, are her targets. But as Browner must know, the new standards were not written to apply merely to smokestacks, or to smokestack soot. Rather, as the American Farm Bureau Federation has complained, they will result in additional regulation at virtually every stage of food production and processing.