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The Queen Of Clean Air

EPA Chief Browner wore down everyone, right up to the President, in her battle for tougher rules

By Michael D. Lemonick

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 7) -- As a piece of understatement, the President's pronouncement last week was nothing short of a masterpiece: "I have approved some very strong new regulations today," he said, "that will be somewhat controversial."

Tell it to Carol Browner. When the Environmental Protection Agency chief proposed a set of strict new clean-air rules back in November, she was ambushed from just about every direction. Conservative legislators, industry lobbyists and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal attacked Browner with unusual vehemence, declaring, that, among other things, the rules were based on bad science and would subvert the American way of life by banning barbecues and fireworks.

That was bad enough. But Browner was also blasted by some of her colleagues within the Administration, who accused her of relying on poor data, showing indifference to the economy and--worst of all in a group that prides itself on consensus building--being unwilling to modify her position. Some White House aides even thought she should be fired for insubordination.

But when the President announced the final version of the regulations last week, it was clear that Browner had prevailed. Over the next 10 years, cities and states will be required to reduce ozone levels one-third and will for the first time have to control microscopic soot particles. Factories and power plants will have to clean up their smokestacks; auto pollution will have to be reduced, either by getting cars off the road or by switching to new technologies, such as electric vehicles; and yes, some tiny percentage of homeowners may even be forced to stop using their fireplaces or barbecue grills when the air is especially bad.

The EPA is required by law to make regulatory decisions without regard to the cost of implementing them, and Browner, in her typical up-front fashion, acknowledged from the start that the cost of the new standards will be high--up to $8.5 billion a year, according to agency estimates. Yet the cleanup will, by her calculations, also save 15,000 lives, cut hospital admissions for respiratory illness by 9,000 and reduce chronic bronchitis cases by 60,000 each year. Surely that is worth a few billion.

Maybe so, but friends and foes alike were quick to point out that her figures are anything but solid. The original trigger for Browner's proposal was a lawsuit brought by the American Lung Association. The suit accused the EPA of ignoring new scientific evidence showing that small particles in the air--bits of matter much tinier than the diameter of a human hair--are especially harmful to health. A federal judge ordered the agency to look at the evidence and, if the data warranted it, come up with new regulations.

So the EPA reviewed 86 separate studies about the association between soot and dust particles and human illness. The agency was already thinking about tightening its rules on ozone, a noxious form of oxygen produced in the burning of fossil fuels. (Another fossil-fuel combustion by-product, carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas, responsible in large part for the phenomenon of global warming.) It reviewed an additional 186 studies on ozone, making this, according to Browner, the most extensive scientific review undertaken for any air standard the EPA has proposed.

The new rules, however, will not be issued in a vacuum. If they are adopted as written, hundreds of counties across the nation--some of which have worked hard to meet the old, looser standards--will suddenly be in violation. This infuriates businesspeople who would be forced to absorb the costs of any cleanup, and is why industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, carried out a major lobbying and advertising campaign to force Browner to retreat. Big-city mayors joined forces with the business lobby, fearing the new regulations would spur an exodus of factories from urban areas to places with lower pollution. They too put a lot of pressure on the White House.

Charges by Browner's opponents that bad science underlies the new rules can't be dismissed casually. Despite those scores of studies, there is still no smoking gun linking soot particles, in particular, to lung disease. Cities that have lots of soot in the air do tend to have more illness and deaths, but that merely shows an association; it doesn't prove cause and effect. Nobody knows, moreover, by exactly what mechanism particles might cause disease. Given the state of the science, any analysis of pollution risk must be a judgment call.

How good is the EPA's judgment? Industry groups are not the only ones saying it's questionable. The studies available today, says Robert Phalen, director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California at Irvine and an occasional corporate consultant, are just setting the groundwork for future research on whether soot is harmful. "It could be a tragic mistake," says Phalen, "to jump toward a regulation before you know what is going on."

Indeed, some scientists argue that restrictions on soot could, paradoxically, cause more illness, not less. It may be the smallest of the small particles that cause the most damage, according to Gunter Oberdorster, a toxicologist at the University of Rochester. But these ultrafine particles tend to be vacuumed up by their larger cousins. Filter out the latter--which is easier to do--and the former would be free to wreak even greater havoc.

Browner and her scientific advisers are aware of the uncertainties, and don't pretend that their regulations are based on conclusive proof. "There are gaps in the science," acknowledges Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins school of public health. "But the science provides a warning." In any case, argues Browner, the law demands that the EPA set standards that provide an "adequate margin of safety." If public-health officials had waited to uncover precisely how lead and tobacco smoke cause illness, thousands of people would have died unnecessarily.

While Browner's tenacity kept Administration opponents from watering down her original proposals significantly, victory wasn't assured until after Vice President Gore concluded two weeks ago that the Administration had no political alternative to backing her and Clinton endorsed that view. Gore's public silence during the deliberations had struck environmentalists as ominous: not only is the environment Gore's personal portfolio, it's also an issue he's expected to flog during his presidential bid. Beyond that, Gore has personal ties to Browner: she worked on his Senate staff during the early 1980s, helping write some of the environmental laws she now administers.

The President's decision to support Browner is a major victory for the EPA chief, but the new regulations still face a challenge by Congress. Many Republicans and some Democrats have vowed to pass a law overturning them. Support for the EPA crosses party lines: Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York announced last week that he'd fight any attempt to weaken the rules. And even if Congress passes legislation to overturn the rules, opponents would probably be unable to muster enough votes to override a presidential veto.

--Reported by J.F.O. McAllister and Dick Thompson/Washington

The Terms Of Debate

Browner says the new clean-air rules will...

--save as many as 15,000 lives each year --cut annual respiratory-related hospital admissions by 9,000 --reduce the number of chronic bronchitis cases by 60,000 a year

Her many critics counter that the rules...

--are based on flimsy scientific evidence --will force people to give up fireworks and backyard barbecues --will cost industry billions of dollars, might even make people sicker

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