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EPA Advisers Can’t Agree on Revising Ozone Limits (Corrected)

Dec. 6, 2019, 6:49 PMUpdated: Dec. 7, 2019, 4:02 PM

The EPA’s clean air advisers failed on Dec. 6 to agree whether the latest scientific evidence favors keeping in place national caps on ozone pollution.

One science adviser on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee said he thought the current ozone limits of 70 parts per billion needed to be lowered to better protect public health, especially that of children.

But others were uncomfortable with calling for tighter standards owing to the lack of evidence.

Majority support for keeping intact the 2015 standards suggests Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is unlikely to change them next year, despite the views of the lone dissenter.

The seven-member clean air panel has been meeting this week in Raleigh, N.C., to decide whether to go with the agency’s recommendation to retain the 2015 ozone limits, and to tighten the caps on fine airborne particles.

Ozone, a lung-irritating pollutant, is a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that contributes to urban air pollution and can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Fine particulates also result from fossil fuel burning and are associated with exacerbating respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

Prior Panel Disagreement

The impasse over ozone limits mirrored the panel’s lack of a consensus earlier this week on whether to advise Wheeler to retain or tighten the standards for fine airborne particles of pollution.

Both the EPA staff and its advisers are operating under an expedited schedule to meet the spring 2020 deadline for Wheeler to propose whether to retain or tighten the limits for both pollutants.

“There is enough uncertainty in the data to suspect that the current standard will be adequately protective,” said Mark Frampton, a professor emeritus of medicine specializing in pulmonary and critical care at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Frampton said he agreed with recommendations that the same panel reached in 2014, when it recommended the EPA set a standard in the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion.

Compelling Evidence

But Frampton’s stance was at odds with the remaining six members, who said there wasn’t enough compelling evidence to urge Wheeler to tighten the standard.

For instance, Steven Packham, a toxicologist with the Utah Division of Air Quality, said he was uncomfortable advising Wheeler that the standard be lowered.

“If we make that recommendation, then we have taken the judgment away from the administrator,” Packham said, adding: “I don’t want to be a party to that.”

Exceeding Panel’s Charter

Panel Chairman Tony Cox Jr. insisted that Frampton’s question exceeded the charge Wheeler gave the committee, which was to examine whether the latest evidence compels the committee to change the standard.

But Frampton said the committee is charged with advising what national air quality standards are protective of public health within an adequate margin of safety.

Frampton’s reservations were echoed by members of the public who spoke during the meetings, including Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

“It is well within your bounds to suggest what levels will be protective of sensitive populations,” Goldman said, reacting to earlier remarks by Cox about the committee’s charter. “That is a science question.”

Ad Hoc Panels Disbanded

Chris Frey, a former advisory panel chairman, also told Bloomberg Environment that he was pleased that at least one adviser was taking seriously the committee’s obligation to consider sensitive or other at-risk people, despite the data uncertainties involved.

Frey has been a vocal critic of Wheeler’s decision to disband separate ad hoc panels that in the past provided added expertise as the advisory committees reviewed ozone and fine particles, saying it was “an arbitrary, capricious, and specious” action,

He and others also criticized the EPA for rushing through the review process to meet Wheeler’s April 2020 deadline.

In particular, Frey said it was unprecedented for any EPA advisory panel to be asked to review the agency’s preliminary policy conclusions before reaching an agreement on the scientific evidence.

“This places the cart before the horse,” Frey told the panel a day earlier.

(Fixes quote in last paragraph in Dec. 6 story.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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