The Dustup Over Fine Air Pollutants

Despite industry ire, tougher EPA rules look all but certain

On Mar. 12, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency began combing through thousands of comments from corporate lobbyists, environmentalists, and state regulators on an explosive EPA proposal to strengthen the rules governing air pollution. The proposal would, for the first time, regulate emissions of some of the tiniest airborne dust particles, as little as one-seventh the width of a human hair. Industry has launched a broad public campaign to fight the new regulations, which could cost business billions of dollars.

GRIM DATA. Why such a fuss? A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that these dust specks--emitted from coal-fired power plants, boilers, and other industrial sources as well as autos--can cause health problems linked to between 10,000 and 100,000 premature deaths each year. The figures are not precise, but the pollutants could be among the nation's most dangerous public health threats.

Complying with the new rules will be costly. Industry puts the price tag at upwards of $23 billion. "We have no idea where it might end," says Paul Bailey, director of the health and environmental affairs department at the American Petroleum Institute. EPA estimates the costs to be much lower--about $8.4 billion annually for the dust rule and a proposal to curb ozone emissions.

The EPA has proposed that the rules become final July 19. Although states would not be required to comply until 2004, some may act even earlier, requiring utilities and the oil, auto, and mining industries to retrofit machinery or add costly new scrubbers to smokestacks.

The industry attack on the regulations is led by the Air Quality Standards Coalition, a 600-member umbrella group including heavy manufacturing firms and small businesses. It has already spent $1 million. Its allies include such anti-regulatory groups as Citizens for a Sound Economy, which has taken to the airwaves claiming the rules would ban backyard barbecues. Catchy, but untrue.

Business is also bringing in high-powered lawyers, including C. Boyden Gray, President Bush's general counsel, who has been hired by Geneva Steel. Gray, who also chairs Citizens for a Sound Economy, says he's laying the groundwork for legal challenges. "What else can we do?" he asks.

In recent weeks, industry has taken aim at two scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health--Douglas W. Dockery and Joel D. Schwartz. They are responsible for much of the work leading to the conclusion that the tiny pollutants, called fine particulates, cause premature death. Industry critics want access to the researchers' raw files to see whether the published reports accurately reflect the data. "They are trying to slander [the scientists'] reputations," says Morton Lippmann, a member of the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board.

EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner is legally obligated to consider all comments before making a decision. But in the end, industry and environmentalists speculate that the EPA will adopt rules close to what's been proposed. "We're considering everything," says one senior EPA aide. "But it's simply not open to negotiation." Meanwhile, the EPA is adding to industry's agitation by moving forward with a proposal to curb ozone emissions. "This may be too far, too fast," warns Senator John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a longtime champion of the Clean Air Act.

Moderate GOP lawmakers such as Chafee are trying to broker an agreement between the Administration and industry. Chafee has urged the Administration to take a slower approach, in part because many cities have failed to meet current obligations to clean up the air. Under a Chafee plan, the EPA would hold off on the ozone standard until the dust rule settles. The agency would monitor dust pollution for five years while developing a specific standard.

Although industry is accustomed to fighting the EPA through GOP friends on Capitol Hill, Republicans will have a tough time voting for any measure that would block clean air. After taking a beating last year for its anti-environmental strategy, the GOP is eager to appear more moderate on those issues. And other battles are looming, over the Superfund toxic cleanup plan and reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, to mention two. Republicans are finding that they have to be careful about where to pick their fights.

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