Bush watered down smog rules

The Environmental Protection Agency agreed to weaken a key section of its new smog requirements announced this week after being told at the last minute that President Bush preferred a less stringent approach, according to government documents.

The documents depict a series of tense exchanges between the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget during the days before the new smog air quality standard was announced Wednesday.

Changes directed by the White House were inserted into the smog regulation only hours before it was issued with the late flurry of activity forcing the EPA to delay the announcement for five hours.

The disagreement revolved around the amount of protection from ozone, or smog, should be afforded wildlife, farmlands, parks and other open spaces.

This so-called “public welfare” or “secondary” smog standard is separate from a decision to tighten the smog requirements for human health, which the EPA decided to do by reducing the allowable concentrations of ozone in the air from 80 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion.

The revised human health standard got all the attention when it was unveiled Wednesday. But the sharpest behind-the-scene tug-of-war centered on the public welfare standard, according to papers inserted in the EPA regulatory docket on Thursday.

The memos and documents indicate that senior EPA officials had wanted to make the public welfare standard more stringent than the health standard, although still not as protective as some scientists had recommended.

But the White House Office of Management and Budget insisted that both standards be identical, according to the documents. When EPA officials balked, the issue was taken to Bush, who sided with the Office of Management and Budget.

The White House involvement in the EPA smog decision was first reported by The Washington Post.

Susan Dudley, head of OMB’s Information and Regulatory Affairs, alluded to Bush’s direct involvement in a last minute memo she sent to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

“The president has concluded that consistent with administration policy, added protection should be afford to public welfare by strengthening the secondary ozone standard and setting it to be identical to the new primary standard,” she wrote in a memo to Johnson. It should not be weaker or more stronger than the human health standard, the OMB insisted.

Although dated March 13, the memo was faxed to the EPA on March 12, only hours before the rule’s announcement. Parts of the memo were included in the rule’s preamble posted on the EPA web site.

“Never before has a president personally intervened at the 11th hour, exercising political power at the expense of the law and science, to force EPA to accept weaker air quality standards than the agency chief’s expert scientific judgment had led him to adopt,” said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private advocacy group. “It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference.”

Dudley in an earlier March 6 memo had questioned the EPA’s justification for have a stronger smog requirement for public welfare than for human health.

The “public welfare” — or secondary — standard is fashioned in a way to protect against long-term harm to the environment. The limits on ozone under this standard are likely to have more impact on rural areas than urban centers.

Environmentalists and ecologists have argued that the standard should be more stringent than the human health ozone standard.

Last year the EPA staff as well as a science advisory panel on clean air also concluded that protection of forests, agricultural lands and the nation’s ecosystem requires a “substantially different” ozone standard than the one for protection of human health.

In recent weeks the Agriculture Department, however, weighted in heavily against making the public welfare ozone standard tougher. The department expressed concerns about the impact additional pollution controls might have on agriculture and development of biofuels, especially ethanol.

The Agriculture Department made its concerns known to OMB, which in a March 6 memo sent by Dudley to the EPA, questioned the needed for a different public welfare ozone standard. EPA officials replied that the need is clear and that drifting ozone pollution has been found to cause “adverse effects” on agricultural crops, forests and vegetation.

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On the Net: Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov