White House Overrules EPA on Air Quality Standards

The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to set the air quality standards to protect public health and the environment. But the White House is now interfering with new efforts by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. The Environmental Protection Agency announced tighter standards last week - standards for how much ozone in the air is safe to breathe. Turns out, the agency was going to be even stricter - that is, until President Bush got involved. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The EPA, backed up by its independent science advisors, was determined to set a separate standard to protect trees and crops from ozone.

Professor ELLIS COWLING (North Carolina State University): Many plants are substantially more sensitive than people are to the injurious effects of ozone.

SHOGREN: Ellis Cowling is a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State and a member of EPA's science advisory board for air pollution.

Prof. COWLING: Plants live outside all the time.

SHOGREN: In people, ozone causes respiratory attacks and even premature death. In many trees and crops, ozone slows their growth and makes them use more water. The EPA specifically designed the secondary standard to reflect the particular way ozone hurts plants. It would have measured ozone levels over the course of three months in the summer, when ozone is highest and plants are in the middle of their growing seasons. But less than a week before a court-ordered deadline to release the ozone standards, Susan Dudley from the White House Office of Management and Budget told the EPA to back off. The EPA resisted. Then, on the day of the deadline, the president stepped in. Vickie Patton is a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

Ms. VICKIE PATTON (Attorney, Environmental Defense Fund): A letter was sent from the White House, unequivocally instructing EPA to abandon standards that would have been profoundly important in protecting the environment from smog pollution.

SHOGREN: Scientists and environmentalists have repeatedly criticized the Bush White House for ignoring and manipulating science. Usually, the White House rejects these accusations. But this time, the White House relayed the president's order in black and white, and documents detailing the interference were posted on the official government Web site for new regulations. Legally speaking, the problem with this is the Clean Air Act specifically gives the EPA chief authority to set these standards. And science, not economics, is supposed to guide them. White House spokesman Tony Fratto says the White House checked with the Justice Department before intervening. And EPA administrator Stephen Johnson told reporters that he made the final decision after consulting with the White House.

Mr. STEPHEN JOHNSON (EPA Administrator): Where there is a disagreement on a policy issue, there is a forum for addressing those and having an appropriate consultation, and that's what we did.

SHOGREN: Despite repeated requests, Susan Dudley from OMB refused to be interviewed about why the White House overruled the EPA. But in a memo to EPA, she said the agency didn't consider the impact of its proposed secondary standard on, quote, "economic values, personal comfort and well being." She also argued that precedent suggests that health and environmental standards should be identical. Two career EPA officials say the way the White House intervened was bizarre. They wouldn't speak on tape because they fear losing their jobs. But they say they've never seen the White House weigh in so late to weaken a rule and do it so publicly. EPA's science advisors, like Ellis Cowling, were also disappointed in the president's interference.

Prof. COWLING: I guess he doesn't trust science to guide public policy.

SHOGREN: The White House may not have the final say on the matter. Lawyers for environmental groups are busy preparing to sue.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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