When I drive by cars festooned with bumper stickers all hot for the “Ron Paul Revolution,” I typically just chuckle and shake my head.
“Crazy rascals ... Let them have their fun,” I think with a smile. But every once in a while, government officials get filled with the same free-market, anti-regulation euphoria as Paul’s followers and innocent people get swept up by the forces unleashed by their ideological fervor. One particular example revolves around how much soot — yes, I said soot — should be allowed in the air. Deciding whether this fine particulate matter is regulated could literally be a life or death issue for many Americans.
The Environmental Protection Agency published a Jan. 15 revision of its air pollution standard for soot that reduced the allowable amount of soot in the air from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Not surprisingly, the revision has drawn the ire of the usual suspects: Republicans and industry officials.
But the complaints — it will cost jobs, slow economic growth, attract bears — from the people generally expected to complain about such matters pales in comparison to the consequences that resulted from this revision not being published years earlier.
See, in 2006, then-EPA Administrator Steven Johnson, a George W. Bush-era appointee, overruled both his own staff’s scientists and his expert scientific advisory committee to prevent the soot standard from being reduced, according to an article on the Union of Concerned Scientist’s website. At the time, the agency was conducting a review of its soot standards as mandated by the Clean Air Act, which is required every five years based on the best available science with regard to the protection of human health.
Johnson cited disagreement within the agency’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee as the reason for his decision, but the chairman of that committee disputed this answer.
“There was nothing unclear in our recommendations,” Rogene Henderson, a now-emeritus biochemist at the Lovelace Respiratory Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., told the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We provided the EPA administrator a consensus opinion about the standard for fine particulate.”
She was not the only one unsatisfied with Johnson’s explanation. In February 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that Johnson had violated the Clean Air Act by failing to provide sufficient reasoning for rejecting the science advisory committee’s science-based recommendations. Now that the new standard has been published, it will take effect in 2014. Unfortunately, the seven-year delay has caused irreversible damage.
The EPA’s own analysis found a lower soot standard recommended by scientific advisers could have prevented 2,000 premature deaths, a Christian Science Monitor article reported. In addition, a report by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, estimated that if the EPA would adopt an annual standard of 11 micrograms per cubic meters and a daily standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter — and if these standards were actually met — the result would be 35,700 fewer premature deaths a year.
Many government officials, particularly Republicans, have treated environmental regulations as some kind of big-government bogeyman even when they are based on the best science available. While I don’t agree with all environmental regulations, some of these laws are of inestimable worth to human health. Examples like the soot debacle are proof of the dangerous consequences that can occur when political ideology is allowed to trump sound science.
Forgive me, but I’ll skip the Ron Paul revolution.
Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/