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The New EPA: Protecting Polluters EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman's Tenure Is Marked By Rollbacks and Missed Deadlines
by Steven Rosenfeld
Published: Mar 18 2002

From TomPaine.com

James Pew is an attorney with EarthJustice, a non-profit law firm for the environment.

Air pollution kills. It's no secret that the toxic chemicals being pumped into the air every day kill people, kill wildlife and permanently damage the environment. Congress recognized these grim facts when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and again when the Act was amended in 1990. The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly emphasized the catastrophic health impacts of toxic air pollution.

Yet the EPA's actions don't match its words. The EPA is doing a terrible job in controlling emissions. It has missed every single deadline in recent memory for controlling toxic air pollution. As a result, almost half of the industries that emit major amounts of toxic air pollution are still not regulated. They're polluting and nobody's watching. Thanks to foot-dragging by EPA, 80,000 major polluters -- each capable of spewing at least 10 tons of toxic gas and particles into the air each year -- are doing little or nothing to reduce their emissions. These are the EPA's own figures.

This is a very real problem so real and mainstream that Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and now EPA boss was asked about it on the "Today Show" on March 7th. Host Katie Couric said, "The EPA has been criticized for extending the deadline for compliance with the Clean Air Act," and then she quoted a congressman who said that delay was illegal and exposed people to unsafe air. To that, Whitman replied, "We're continuing to meet deadlines. And I'm not sure to what the congressman is referring."

But Whitman's reply simply wasn't true. That's what makes it so alarming. Doesn't Whitman know her own agency is currently breaking the law -- that it is currently in violation of scores of Clean Air Act deadlines? Didn't Whitman remember that just two days before speaking with Couric, she herself signed into law regulations that put off air controls for at least two more years -- and set the stage for yet more delay in the future?

As EPA administrator, perhaps Whitman doesn't delve into the nitty-gritty of the regulations she signs. But if Christine Whitman doesn't know what's in her regulations, who does? Jeffrey Holmstead, the man directly in charge of EPA's air program, was -- until joining the Bush administration -- a lawyer for pro-pollution lobby groups like the Chemical Manufacturers Association. These interests stand to benefit directly from the delay or weakening of air toxics regulations. Is their former lawyer making the final decisions about how to protect public health from air toxics?

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, it knew that clean-up deadlines were not enough; EPA already had been ignoring statutory deadlines for two decades. So Congress created an insurance policy: if EPA misses a deadline to set air pollution standards by more than 18 months, each major toxic polluter that EPA fails to regulate must seek a special permit from its state to stay in business. Meanwhile, the states must set strong standards for those sources on a case-by-case basis, ensuring that each source reduces all of its toxic emissions by the greatest amount feasible.

This month Whitman ripped up that insurance policy. Her action allows the agency to keep violating the Clean Air Act deadlines without triggering the automatic requirement for case-by-case controls. What she did is flatly illegal and an abuse of power by the Executive Branch - only Congress can make law and only Congress can change the law. And Whitman's action will have a real impact on real people. It will prolong their exposure to pollutants that are known to cause serious illness and death.

Whitman's statements on the "Today Show" were misleading. The Environmental Protection Agency isn't meeting its deadlines; it is deliberately putting them off. If she had told people the truth -- that the EPA is breaking the law by postponing deadlines in a way that benefits the Bush administration's corporate backers -- people might get upset.

But Whitman's false assurances make people think the EPA is watching out for their health, when in reality, it's choosing not to act on toxic emissions that threaten their health.

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