Sin of Emission

The air is getting dirtier. So why doesn't the EPA seem to care?

| Fri Jul. 2, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

The sky may not be falling, but it sure is dirty. That was the conclusion of a number of government reports released this week, offering disturbing new data on everything from air pollutants to toxic emissions. So what can we expect in response? Will a barrage of bleak facts cause the administration to reconsider its failed environmental policies? Not likely. Confronted with the findings, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt could only mutter, "This is a very good news story."

On Tuesday, the EPA put out its latest air pollution assessment, indicating that a staggering ninety-nine million Americans are currently breathing much-too-dirty air, the sort that can cause respiratory problems and premature death.

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The report raised serious questions about the pace of the EPA's pollution-control plan. As John Balbus, the director of Environmental Defense's health program, warned, "the solutions are not being implemented until the next generation." Presently, the EPA is calling for a 40 percent reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by 2010. Many environmentalists believe that a 90 percent reduction is a more appropriate goal, and the new pollution report certainly lends that view added credibility.

Critics might also ask whether the EPA's standards will even be enforced. The most pollution-heavy counties, 243 in all, will supposedly have until November to figure out how to comply with federal standards. But, as The Washington Post noted, "there are no specific penalties for failing to meet national goals." That's troubling. Too often in the past, the administration has trumpeted tough standards, only to refrain from following through. Last November, for instance, EPA lawyers were ordered to abandon over 70 investigations into coal-burning plants that violated pollution laws. Needless to say, this sort of lenience renders the laws utterly useless.

The news about air pollution followed yet another EPA report, released last week, announcing that the amount of toxic chemical emissions had risen five percent in 2002, after a decline in the previous year.

The EPA tried to explain away the increase by pointing to a copper-smelting facility in Arizona that had shut down and consequently dumped most of its waste. But environmental groups shot down this sleight-of-hand. The president of the National Environmental Trust, Phil Clapp said it well:

The growth in emissions is too big to be explained away by pointing at a smelter here or a factory there. This is an across-the-board increase in pollution.

Furthermore, environmental groups accused the EPA of undercounting the level of chemical emissions in 2002. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) estimated that industrial producers were emitting "four to five times more toxic material" than the EPA had reported. The EIP had looked closely at findings from the Texas Committee on Environmental Quality, noting that the concentration of toxic substances around factories tended to be "far higher than the figures reported to state and local authorities."

If that wasn't enough, a General Accounting Office (GAO) report recently surfaced on military chemicals seeping into the groundwater. The Los Angeles Times dryly pointed out that the report has arrived right as the Pentagon was seeking exemptions from hazardous-waste laws, having already scored a number of concessions from the EPA. In its defense, the Pentagon has meekly protested that it would cost untold billions to clean up after itself, an assertion swatted down by the GAO:

The inconsistencies in how [the Defense Department] collected and analyzed data on operational ranges raises questions about the reliability of the inventory.

Faulty environmental data seems to be a common theme these days. On March 16, the LA Times reported that EPA staffers were ordered not to conduct routine scientific and economic analyses for regulations governing mercury emissions. Little wonder, then, that few pay heed anymore to the numbers and figures tossed out by the administration.

In the face of all this news, someone ought to take the blame, and on Thursday, the LA Times pointed its editorial finger squarely in the Bush administration's direction:

Some of the most microscopic particles in the air are of the greatest concern to health because they easily find their way to the deep recesses of our lungs….

That's not likely to change under a new directive from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordering 243 counties nationwide to reduce unhealthful levels of fine particulate pollution by 2010. As on-target as EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt's demand sounds, it is seriously undercut by his own efforts and those of his boss, President Bush, to erode even existing protections.

The editorial recounts how the administration has consistently battled against efforts to reduce air pollution -- from filing briefs against anti-pollution initiatives in California, to rewriting regulations that make it easier for coal plants to avoid installing state-of-the-art pollution equipment.

None of this is new or astonishing. In an April New York Times Magazine cover story, Bruce Barcott described how the administration had undermined "new source review" -- the requirements for installing new pollution-control devices in factories. Although the EPA recently announced that it would "reconsider" its stance on "new source review," such pronouncements have rarely been followed up.

Indeed, the case for pessimism is overwhelming. As Mother Jones has reported, Bush's environmental team is stacked with industry insiders and former lobbyists. Don't expect this bunch to be swayed by a few pesky reports on dirty air and toxic waste. Reality has rarely played a part in the administration's environmental policy.

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