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EPA to Keep Clinton Rule to Curb Lead

April 18, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that the agency will uphold a Clinton administration rule aimed at reducing lead emissions, the second such move in two days after a string of Bush administration decisions that had angered environmentalists.

The rule is aimed at reducing cases of lead poisoning by requiring thousands more factories to disclose their release of lead. Even in small quantities, lead is toxic to humans, particularly children.

The decision came the day after the EPA announced it would retain another Clinton administration regulation that expanded protections to the nation's wetlands; taken together, the actions reverse a pattern that had sparked intense criticism from environmentalists.

Recent public opinion polls have suggested that such attacks were taking their toll. Only 37% of respondents to a recent Roper poll said they approved of how Bush is handling the environment, while 40% said they disapproved. And a recent CBS News poll found that 59% of respondents said they opposed his decision "not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

The choreography of the announcement on the lead-reporting regulation appeared to reflect at least some sensitivity to the criticisms. While many similar announcements of this scale have been made through agency press releases, Tuesday's announcement was made personally by EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, standing behind the lectern in the White House briefing room.

"What we want to make very clear to the American people is that this administration, this president cares about these issues," she said. "This administration has an extraordinarily good environmental record."

Previously, the Bush administration has rolled back or delayed implementation of several environmental regulations adopted by Clinton as his term neared an end. These included a rule to tighten restrictions on arsenic in drinking water. Bush also came under fire when he decided to drop a campaign pledge to cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and also to abandon the U.S. involvement in the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on global warming.

Administration officials have argued that each reflected an evenhanded approach to balancing environmental concern with the needs of business. But critics, noting that Bush's 2000 campaign received record-breaking donations from many industries that are regulated by the federal government or rely on use of federal lands, said the decisions showed that the new administration would favor business interests in most environmental decisions.

Environmentalists welcomed the decision on lead reporting but had little else good to say.

"The pattern I'm seeing is a ratio of 10 parts dumping on the environment to 1 part stepping aside and letting something good happen," said Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club's director in Washington.

Noting that the debate over the administration's environmental record is sure to be spotlighted on Earth Day on Sunday, Sease added: "They're looking for a couple of things they can look good at."

For the most part, the decision on the lead-reporting regulation raised few hackles within the business community.

The regulation, enacted during the waning days of the Clinton presidency, requires an estimated 9,800 more facilities nationwide--many of them metal smelters and electronic equipment manufacturers--to report in detail their releases of toxic lead into the air, water or land.

"We found out that the more information we have and make available about toxic releases, the more emissions [of lead] have been reduced," Whitman said in making the announcement at the White House. "I am confident this action is an important step toward protecting the health of children and expanding communities' right to know."

Lead can cause damage to children's brains and central nervous systems, slow growth and cause behavior and learning problems. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems.

"This isn't one we're going to the mat on," said Bill Kovacs, an environment and regulation specialist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Tom Sullivan, director of the legal foundation for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the group intends to file suit in federal court to seek to block the regulation.

The new rule extends the government's emission-reporting requirement to facilities that use, process or manufacture more than 100 pounds of lead a year. Existing rules required reports from facilities that process or manufacture more than 25,000 pounds annually or use more than 10,000 pounds annually.

EPA officials estimated the current regulations pertain to only about 1,900 facilities.

The first reports under the new rule will be due next year.

The stricter lead-reporting requirements will be part of the Toxic Release Inventory, an annual report of toxic chemicals that are being used, manufactured, treated, transported or released into the environment.

Since 1988, releases of those toxic chemicals have been reduced 45%, in large part because of the reporting requirements, according to Maria Doa, who works on EPA's Toxic Release Inventory project. The reporting requirement itself does not force companies to reduce emissions.

The health effect of lead poisoning can be immediate or delayed by years or even decades because lead can accumulate in tissue and bones and be stored for a long time.

Health experts praised Tuesday's announcement.

"The new rule doesn't help enforce health standards, but it provides a first step so we know how much lead is out in the air," said Tarek Rizk, a spokesman for Physicians for Social Responsibility. "The next step is to begin to monitor chronic disease and how the exposures may begin to impact our health."

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Associated Press contributed to this story.

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