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EPA Already Relaxing New Lead Rules

Oct 24, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP On October 15, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that it would significantly reduce the highest acceptable amount of airborne lead from 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter to 0.15 micrograms in the first revision of the standard it set 30 years ago.  Now, following White House intervention, the EPA just weakened the rule at the last minute, minimizing the number of known polluters requiring emissions monitoring.

Public documents—emails from the EPA to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), for instance—reveal that the OMB objected to the way in which the EPA determined which lead-emitting battery recycling plants and other facilities would be monitored.  So, on October 15—the court-imposed deadline for issuing the revised standard—the EPA submitted a proposal to require monitoring of facilities that emitted a half-ton of lead or more annually.  The downgrade was insufficient and emails indicate that the White House objected; early that evening, the EPA raised the level to one ton per year.  EPA documents state that 346 sites emit a half-ton or more of lead each year.  This means that the increased threshold of one ton per year reduced the number of lead-emitting sites requiring monitoring by 211 or over 60 percent.

The EPA also required states to place monitors in areas where populations were greater than 500,000; however, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—an environmental group that pushed for tougher lead standards to protect public health—said one monitor in a large city was very different from a monitor placed near a plant.  “We don’t expect the urban monitors to be effective to get the hot spots that the site-specific monitors can get,” said Gina Solomon, an NRDC scientist and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “The monitoring network has a lot of gaps in it.”

The EPA originally estimated that at the half-ton annual emissions cut-off, it would need from 150 to 600 monitors, said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn.  Under the final rule, with the revised one-ton cut-off, the requirement will be 135 site-specific monitors and 101 urban monitors in areas of 500,000 or more people, she said.  There are 133 monitors now.  The Battery Council International, a trade group that represents U.S. lead battery makers and recyclers, told the EPA in public comments in August that the proposed half-ton threshold was “unjustifiably low.”

Airborne lead can be inhaled, but exposure commonly occurs from ingestion of contaminated soil, for example when children play in a contaminated area and touch their mouths with dirty hands.  Current scientific studies reveal that lead is dangerous at much lower levels in the human body than previously believed and show that children’s nervous systems are especially vulnerable, with lead exposure resulting in IQ loss and damage to many internal systems.  Lead exposure also occurs in adults and regardless of age, exposure can damage virtually any body system, causing varied and seemingly unrelated symptoms, making lead poisoning very challenging to identify.  Although lead emissions were greatly reduced 30 years ago when the government ordered it removed from gasoline, it is still emitted by lead smelters, cement plants, and steel mills.


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