EPA Restores Scientific Integrity to How We Define Clean Air

Kudos to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for announcing today that EPA would abandon a change imposed by the Bush administration that politicized the agency's responsibility to define clean air based solely on the best understanding of science and health information.

Jackson re-instated a key component of EPA's longstanding approach to establishing and updating "national ambient air quality standards" (NAAQS) that are "requisite to protect the public health," in the words of the Clean Air Act. That component involves preparation of a publicly available "Staff Paper" by EPA scientists reviewing the scientific literature for an updated understanding of the full range of harms caused by air pollution. It is essential for this review to be honest and free from politics so that the right choices can be placed before EPA's politically appointed decisionmakers to decide how to define clean air in this country "with an ample margin of safety" necessary to protect the public.

It's the stuff of bureaucracies that makes the eyes glaze over, but this Staff Paper long provided important integrity, credibility and transparency to the critical process of protecting public health against air pollution - without early or undue interference by political appointees. The Bush administration eliminated the Staff Paper from the NAAQS review process following a politically embarrassing controversy in which former EPA Administrator Johnson rejected his own scientists' and outside scientists' recommendations to strengthen a critical element of the air quality standards for PM2.5 (fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less). Because regulated industries and the White House opposed a stronger annual standard for PM2.5 pollution, Johnson refused to strengthen the existing, unprotective standard and concocted a series of arbitrary excuses for failing to follow the science.

NRDC and other public health organizations, academics and external scientists vigorously protested Johnson's politically driven decision. So the Bush administration moved quickly to quell the possibility for future controversies by simply killing the Staff Paper: don't let the agency scientists present recommendations based upon an honest analysis of the science, and you minimize the risk that a subsequent political dictate will contradict those recommendations.

The Bush administration replaced the Staff Paper with a politicized document that from the outset handcuffed EPA's scientists and reflected the preferences of the political appointees in the agency. This document was put out for public comment, and EPA's external science advisors -- given a special role by Congress in the Clean Air Act -- were relegated to the role of any other stakeholder offered a chance to comment on this more politicized document.

Industry lobbyists loved these changes, and actually had the chutzpah to claim that they furthered transparency. As a representative for the American Petroleum Institute put it, this revised process allowed all stakeholders and EPA's science advisors "to see the same things at the same time and have a better understanding of where the proposed rulemaking is going to go."

Uh, yeah. The process was going to go where the political appointees wanted it to go -- after suppressing EPA scientists' recommendations and presenting the scientific literature and range of clean air standards in a manner that the political appointees deemed politically palatable to the White House. There was no transparency, of course, into the politicized interference exercised by the White House, or political appointees at EPA or other federal agencies. So the transparency banner that industry wielded with ironic flourish was after-the-fact "transparency" into a politically tainted, non-transparent process. A process driven by politicians rather than scientists, much more to industry's liking.

Bear that in mind when today's welcome restoration of the Staff Paper and elimination of the Bush administration's political interference are decried by industry in the disingenuous name of "transparency."

A federal district court judge actually blocked the Bush administration from executing its plan during its review of the lead NAAQS in 2008. But the prior administration plowed ahead with its political science agenda anyway for other air pollution reviews. Call the Bush administration impressively prescient, or inescapably political, but two years after the PM2.5 debacle Johnson again refused to follow the science and adopted politicized ozone standards that also were unprotective of public health and the environment and fell well outside the range urged by EPA's science advisors.

Sometimes science and the law and good government do catch up with past malfeasance. In February, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals deemed Johnson's 2006 PM2.5 standards arbitrary and overturned them, ruling they were "in several respects, contrary to law and unsupported by adequately reasoned decisionmaking." Which is to be expected when you fail to heed the science and follow the law. And now today's announcement by Administration Jackson completes the rebuke of the Bush administration's campaign to politicize the NAAQS review process.

All that we need now is for the D.C. Circuit or EPA itself to repudiate the Bush administration's refusal to set scientifically-based, protective health and welfare standards for ozone pollution. Following today's announcement, there's reason to be optimistic.