U.S. EPA was set to issue a more protective secondary ozone standard but rewrote its regulations after the White House intervened on the eve of the agency's court-ordered deadline, according to a memo released today by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Democrats.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson initially supported establishing a secondary standard -- aimed at protecting wildlife, parks and farmland -- to limit long-term cumulative ozone exposure over a three-month growing season, according to a memo summarizing the committee's investigation. EPA's scientific advisers also favored that standard, it says.
But EPA was told March 11 that President Bush had rejected its position and that of the agency's scientific advisory committee, the memo says.
An EPA official told the committee the move set off an "emergency rewrite" of the secondary standard so the agency could justify setting it at the same level as the new primary standard, 75 parts per billion over a short-term, eight-hour period. EPA had tightened that standard from 80 ppb.
The rewrite excised language describing the cumulative, seasonal standard as "necessary ... to ensure the requisite degree of protection," the memo notes. Instead, the rewritten version said that the administrator "does not believe that an alternative cumulative, seasonal standard is needed."
The rewrite drew criticism from EPA officials. "Looks like pure politics," an EPA associate director said, according to the memo.
An EPA lawyer warned the agency "could be in the position of having to fend off contempt proceedings."
One career official described the move as unprecedented. "I have been working on [air quality standards] for 30 years and have yet to see anything like this," the official noted.
Battle over documents
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has demanded Johnson turn over documents related to EPA's communications with the White House on the ozone decision. Waxman said Johnson must bring the documents with him to an oversight hearing taking place today or he will be in defiance of a committee subpoena.
Johnson indicated at a press conference yesterday he may not turn over the documents.
EPA is continuing to have discussions with Congress regarding the documents, which involve EPA's communications with the White House, he noted, saying the agency already has turned over thousands of documents related to the ozone decision.
But Waxman says EPA has withheld more than 30 documents from the committee relating to communications with White House offices.
Waxman also has requested that Susan Dudley, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Information and Regulatory Affairs Office, bring subpoenaed documents relating to the ozone decision to the hearing (E&ENews PM, May 19).