The EPA's Polluted Science

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to tighten air pollution standards again. What we really need, however, is an effective program to control the EPA.

The EPA is facing a legal deadline of September for deciding whether to make the federal standards for fine particulate matter (soot) and ground-level ozone (smog) more stringent.

While this may sound like a laudable goal on the surface, the absurdity of the process becomes readily apparent once you learn that the EPA’s air quality standards for soot and smog issued in 1997 have yet to be fully implemented and their results assessed.

Worse, the congressional opposition to this new EPA crackdown has opted for the usually futile tactic of arguing costs rather than science with the agency.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must consider health risks but not costs in determining the so-called “national ambient air quality standards.”

Despite the law’s express prohibition on the consideration of costs, Sen. George Voinovich, D-Ohio, is arguing that hundreds of counties would violate the EPA’s new standards, according to an article in the Clean Air Report (July 27).

Voinovich asserted at a July 19 hearing on the EPA’s proposed rules that while he was governor of Ohio, the state had difficulty in attracting businesses because of the EPA rules.

While I appreciate the importance of Voinovich’s concerns, his assumption that fellow politicians, the public and the media -- all largely ignorant of the realities of air quality science -- will prioritize jobs over the public health will not carry the day in this debate.

Voinovich apparently doesn’t remember the circus surrounding the EPA’s issuance of air quality rules for soot and smog in 1997. The costs of those rules -- still not fully implemented, mind you -- were estimated to be $100 billion per year for soot and were not estimated at all for smog because they were extraordinarily high (remember that, under the law, the EPA is not supposed to consider costs at all, so their calculation is technically not even necessary).

The EPA did, however, claim that its rules would prevent thousands of premature deaths per year, thus satisfying the legal and political hurdles to issuing the rules -- at least on a superficial level. And this aspect of the EPA’s rulemaking is where Sen. Voinovich – if he really wanted to spotlight problems with the agency and its rulemaking -- should focus his attention.

The stark fact is that there is not a single believable study demonstrating that soot and smog at current levels cause any significant health problems -- let alone any deaths.

Yes, the EPA has perhaps dozens if not hundreds of studies that purport to link soot, in particular, with premature death, but every single one of these studies is easily debunked as an exercise in statistical wishful thinking.

All of the studies that supposedly link soot with premature deaths rely on extraordinarily poor health and soot exposure data, and weak statistical correlations.

They’re even more laughable given that the precedent cited by the agency for relying on such weak statistical correlations is the EPA’s own 1993 report claiming to link secondhand smoke with lung cancer -- a study that was eviscerated and vacated by a federal court in 1998 because the EPA’s science was so poor and contrived in nature.

The health data the EPA’s studies relied upon was so dubious in quality that when Congress requested that the agency turn over the data for independent review, the EPA’s only realistic choice was to stonewall – and it did, refusing to turn over the data to a Congress that blinked in the face of bureaucratic refusal.

It was a daring tactic that served the agency well as it entirely prevented any meaningful review of the agency’s health claims, which subsequently helped the agency beat back legal efforts to block the rules.

What Sen. Voinovich also apparently doesn’t understand is the EPA modus operandi when it comes to science and regulation. You might think that the EPA first looks at the science and then decides whether regulation is necessary – you’d be wrong.

The EPA typically decides first whether to regulate, and then it molds and manipulates the science to fit its regulatory decisions. This has long been standard practice at the agency – a 1992 report entitled “Safeguarding the Future: Credible Science, Credible Decisions” by a blue ribbon panel of scientists reviewing the EPA’s use of science concluded that the EPA “adjusts science to fit policy” – and was one of the reasons given by the federal court for vacating the EPA’s secondhand smoke risk assessment.

If Sen. Voinovich is truly concerned about the economic impacts of the EPA’s proposed air quality standards, he would start at the proposal’s Achilles heel –the EPA’s junk science.

Steven Milloy publishes and He is a junk science expert, an advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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