The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday streamlined the way it updates regulations for the nation's worst air pollutants, a move that drew immediate charges that officials are trying to quash scientific review to benefit industry at the expense of public health.
The changes, some of which closely mirror requests by the American Petroleum Institute and Battery Council International industry groups, include shortening what is now an exhaustive scientific review, and replacing recommendations prepared by career scientists and reviewed by independent advisors with a "policy paper" crafted by senior White House appointees at the agency.
EPA officials said the changes were made in part at the request of its science advisors, who have complained that the process for reviewing new health standards is overwhelming.
The agency regularly misses deadlines for updating health standards, which has led to numerous lawsuits by environmental groups.
"EPA is bringing air rule-making into the 21st century ... with a timely and transparent process that uses the most up-to-date science," said Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock, who approved the new procedures. "Everyone has found the current process is inefficient, and current delays are unacceptable."
The pollutants covered by the changes include ozone and diesel soot, both of which continue to plague Greater Los Angeles, making it the nation's worst spot for deadly air pollution. Other affected pollutants include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and lead.
Thursday's announcement came two days after the agency announced it would study whether lead should be taken off the list of the most serious pollutants.
It also follows controversial decisions this fall by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson in which critics said he had ignored scientific counsel on tightening standards for deadly soot.
For 30 years under the Clean Air Act, agency scientists have reviewed and recommended health standards for six major air pollutants: ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and lead.
The standards, which limit amounts of the pollutants that can be released into the air, are designed to protect children, the elderly and other "sensitive" populations, and curtail damage to animals, crops, vegetation, views and buildings.
Congress members, environmentalists and past EPA staff from Republican and Democratic administrations swiftly condemned this week's actions, saying they could undermine public health protections.
"EPA is downgrading the role of its own career experts and making sure that political appointees are running the show from the beginning," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch in Washington. "It is little wonder that the oil industry pushed for exactly this sort of 'reform' to the process."
O'Donnell called the lead assessment "a political gift to the lead-smelting lobby.... It could threaten thousands of children who breathe toxic lead fumes."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), incoming chairman of the Government Reform Committee, said in a statement Thursday, "EPA's efforts to roll back ... the most fundamental provisions in the Clean Air Act make no sense, and fly in the face of last month's elections."
On Wednesday, Waxman wrote to Johnson regarding the study of lead, urging him to "renounce this dangerous proposal immediately. This deregulatory effort cannot be defended."
The Chicago-based Battery Council International asked the EPA in July to delete lead from the list of "criteria" pollutants, which are subject to tough health standards. The council said other existing regulations would preserve protection.
Emissions of lead have declined by 96% since its use in gasoline was banned. Agency staff this year found only two sites in the country where lead emissions still exceeded limits, both near smelting facilities used as part of battery manufacturing.
Recent studies have suggested that lead is more harmful than previously thought. But EPA staffers said in a draft paper this week that they would assess whether tough health standards could be revoked.
The ban on leaded gasoline will continue no matter what, agency staff said, as will other rules.
"We need to evaluate whether there's a better way, a more effective regulation or way to better protect the public from lead exposure," EPA Press Secretary Jennifer Wood said.
Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a former EPA assistant administrator appointed by President Reagan and a former member of the agency's science advisory panel, said he was concerned about the changes announced Thursday, especially when coupled with Johnson's decision not to follow his own scientists' advice on deadly fine particulate matter, or soot.
During his time, administrators had "always taken the advice of their scientists," in fact choosing their most stringent recommendations, said Goldstein.
He said that though the regulatory process could be streamlined, it shouldn't be done by eliminating the core scientific recommendations.
John Walke, a former EPA attorney who is now clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Obviously the intended impact is to introduce industry desires ... into the process."
The American Petroleum Institute this year wrote the EPA saying the long-established staff paper on each key pollutant should not be a science-based document but "is a policy document, and as such should have input from senior EPA management."
On Thursday, the agency eliminated the staff papers and replaced them with a separate science assessment that will no longer include policy recommendations, and a "policy assessment" to be prepared by senior EPA managers.
Neither the battery council nor the petroleum institute returned phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.
Acting Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, who helped formulate this week's changes, said the charges of industry influence were "silly" and "false."
He and Peacock defended the changes, saying that the new process, with its separate science and policy assessments, would make clearer what scientific research showed, and what politically appointed policy makers were seeking.