Apr. 21, 2006 – Continuing a pattern of cutbacks to environmental-health protections, the federal government is poised to carve out certain communities and industries from national air-quality standards.
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The US Environmental Protection Agency claims its most recent proposal to overhaul pollution regulations is scientifically based. But environmental groups say the move is an unprecedented and discriminatory attempt to bend science in favor of mining and agricultural interests that have long sought exemption from air-quality regulations.
"If the goal was to protect two industries â€“ mining and agriculture â€“ from having to be regulated, then thatâ€™s what these proposals do very well," said Janice Nolen, director of policy with the American Lung Association. "But they do not do what theyâ€™re supposed to do, which is protect public health."
The EPA is proposing to revise the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which form the foundation for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act. Specifically, the agency would weaken health-based controls for large and small particles of dust and soot.
Environmentalists and public-health organizations have decried provisions that would dismantle the existing standards for "coarse particulate" dust pollution produced by farms and mines. They also oppose the governmentâ€™s attempt to freeze, rather than strengthen standards for "fine particulate" pollution from industrial sources like power plants
The new regulations effectively strip protection from large swaths of the country, including the non-urban lands dominated by polluting factory farms and mines.
The EPAâ€™s critics say the new regulations would violate constitutional and Clean Air Act mandates by discriminating against rural areas that are most vulnerable to the pollution generated by mining and agricultural activities.
In a 140-page statement that concluded the public-comment period for the proposed rulemaking on Monday, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense and other groups called the rollbacks "illegal and irrational."
Farm dust typically contains crushed manure and pesticide residues, while toxic chemicals and pulverized rock are typically swirled up with mining dust. But in its rulemaking, the EPA echoed the argument of industry lobby groups: waste churned out and stirred up by mining and agricultural production is a natural byproduct, rather than a pollutant.
Under the new criteria, the agency would regulate coarse-particle pollution only in urbanized areas with at least 100,000 residents and population densities of at least 500 per square mile. The new regulations effectively strip protection from large swaths of the country, including the non-urban lands dominated by polluting factory farms and mines.
Calling the proposal "an attack on rural America," Sarah Sharpe, a campaign organizer with the California-based advocacy group Coalition for Clean Air, told The NewStandard: "Itâ€™s not fair that we wouldnâ€™t have the same standards for our air as a city or an urban center." Sharpe is based in San Joaquin Valley, an area with some of the countryâ€™s worst air-quality ratings, which also hosts a large Latino farm-worker population that faces heavy exposure to dirt pollution on the job. "There are people living here," she said, "though we might not have as many numbers. But weâ€™re still breathing."
The EPA echoed the argument of industry lobby groups: waste churned out and stirred up by mining and agricultural production is a natural byproduct, rather than a pollutant.
In its analysis of the proposed rule, the EPA concluded that existing scientific research did not clearly show that pollution from such "natural biological materials" and "windblown" particles is as toxic as fine particles associated with urban industrial sources like power plants.
However, according to the EPAâ€™s own fact sheet, coarse-particles emissions are linked to premature death, decreased lung function and hospitalization for breathing and heart problems.
Agribusinesses, however, have long complained that current air-emissions regulations pose an undue burden and legal liability. The National Cattlemenâ€™s Beef Association, an industry lobby, contends that coarse particles have not been proven to pose a serious health risk, concluding that agricultural dust is therefore simply a "nuisance" that producers should clean up and manage on their own terms.
Tamara Thies, the Associationâ€™s director of environmental issues, acknowledged to TNS that agricultural dust may contain pesticides and manure. But imposing a health-based standard, she said, would be unwarranted and would place "a huge cost on agriculture, for little or no public-health or environmental benefit."
But others believe more than profits are at stake in controlling agricultural pollution. Nolen argued that the regulatory structure the industry seeks to stifle "drives almost all of the actions to clean up the air in this country, from the federal government, down to the local government, down to industryâ€¦ Even the shape of our community is driven by what the federal government determines is safe air to breathe."
Environmental groups say the move is an unprecedented and discriminatory attempt to bend science in favor of mining and agricultural interests.
An â€˜Unjustifiedâ€™ Divide
Environmental groups argue that the EPA is drawing a discriminatory rural-urban divide, even though pollution in both rural and urban environments can have similar qualities.
Jana Milford, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, noted that cities and rural areas often share the same pollution sources, and that harmful airborne dust travels easily between regions. "Thereâ€™s no justification for basing health protection on the number of neighbors that somebody happens to have," she commented
Challenging the EPAâ€™s proposal as a violation of equal-protection rights under the Constitution, public-interest groups say the proposed policy would exacerbate race and class divisions. In communities that coexist with mines and big farms, environmentalists point to pollutionâ€™s uneven impact across racial and economic disparities.
Dr. Robert Cohen, a respiratory disease specialist, is concerned about the implications of the rule-change for the coal miners he treats for severe lung damage. "Many of them develop disease and then would have to, later on, if theyâ€™re living in these communities, suffer from worsening environmental conditions," said Cohen, who works with the Great Lakes Centers for Occupational & Environmental Safety & Health in Chicago, Illinois.
Brent Newell, an attorney with the legal-advocacy group Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment, said that in parts of California, "thereâ€™s a majority of low-income people and people of color who have a lack of access to health care, who are going to be bearing a greater pollution burden, because the Bush administration is going to discriminate against them in violation of the Constitution."
And at the border between rural and urban communities, critics say marginalized low-income neighborhoods are vulnerable to pollution from both surrounding industrial facilities and agricultural suppliers upwind.
"The people who live near highways and near the big industrial sites â€“ those are often your low-income communities," said Sarah Jackson, a research associate with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, "so I think that this rule really leaves them out in the cold."
In addition to rolling back certain protections, environmentalists say, the EPA is also failing to make much-needed improvements to air-quality standards, which were last revised in 1997.
The rule-change would basically maintain the current level of pollution protection for short-term coarse-particle exposures over a 24-hour period, though some scientists and environmentalists argue the standard is far from adequate. The annual-exposure standard, which applies to longer-term pollution levels, would be eliminated.
The EPAâ€™s refusal to tighten standards for fine particles has further riled environmental-health advocates, who point to extensive research showing that harmful health effects are still prevalent below the current pollution limits.
The proposal has even faced criticism from the EPAâ€™s own scientific advisors. In a March 21 letter, the agencyâ€™s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee rebuked the Agency for not heeding its recommendation for stronger fine-particle restrictions. Responding to the governmentâ€™s claims that conclusive data on the toxicity of rural particulate pollution was lacking, the Committee urged more monitoring of rural areas, as opposed to cutting off regulatory oversight.
Yet the EPA is seeking to hinder communities from even tracking their pollution, by cutting off sponsorship for air-monitoring in areas that would be exempted from coarse-particle regulation. It would also weaken monitoring programs generally by permitting the pollution standard to be exceeded on more days over a long-term tracking period.
Cohen said that since the prospects for future monitoring in many communities will be extinguished along with current air-quality standards, the EPA has effectively rigged the regulatory system.
"Thereâ€™s a saying in medicine that if you donâ€™t take a temperature, you wonâ€™t find a fever," he said. "Well, lack of monitoring is that same philosophy."