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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE THE EPA FOLLIES

A wrong-way agency

January 28, 2006

FOR TOO LONG, THE EPA HAS BEEN AWOL. Once a proud protector of public well-being, the Environmental Protection Agency has become an agency that too often ignores science and must be dragged into taking even the smallest steps. Even worse, it prevents other public agencies from moving forward with plans to protect the environment.

The EPA was criticized last week by the Government Accountability Office for its weak efforts to keep lead out of drinking water. Its own inspector general reported last year that the agency ignored scientific evidence in its poorly planned effort to come up with soft limits on mercury pollution. Its requirements for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada were thrown out of court in 2004 because they fell far short of those called for by the National Academy of Sciences.

Now the EPA would like to weaken rules on toxic reporting, and it is ignoring a key recommendation of its own Scientific Advisory Committee -- a first, according to many veterans -- to propose keeping annual levels of particulates at their current levels. The microscopic particles are a stubborn pollutant in Southern California's air and can cause heart disease, asthma and poor lung development in children.

Perhaps most frustrating to the rest of the world -- and many U.S. states -- the EPA wants nothing to do with regulating greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Twelve states, including California, sued to force the EPA into doing its rightful job, but the courts ruled against them; the EPA claims it lacks the authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Last month, the top U.S. negotiator walked out of the international talks in Montreal on cutting greenhouse gases. It was left to representatives of individual states to show the world that this country does care about global warming -- even if its leaders don't.

California, whose anti-smog laws predate the federal government's, is the only state with the power to regulate air pollution. It has adopted regulations that would reduce tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases by 30%. Last month, seven other states signed on, saying they wanted to follow California's standards rather than the EPA's non-standards. In addition, seven Eastern states joined together last month to agree on regulations for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

But the states would need the EPA's permission to go forward, and the federal agency is giving off negative vibes.

The EPA reportedly has said that reducing tailpipe emissions would require better fuel economy, and only the federal government is authorized to set fuel economy standards. And it also said that better fuel economy would in turn mean smaller, lighter, "less safe" cars.

The EPA is not only ruling out the idea that there might be ways to reduce tailpipe emissions but also clearly hasn't been reading some of the road-safety studies on SUVs.

The agency cannot have it both ways. It says that it doesn't have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases but that it does have the authority to stop states from doing so.

If the EPA thinks limits on the emissions that cause global warming are unworkable, it's entitled to its view. (It would be honest, at least, though also wrongheaded.) But it shouldn't prevent those who think such limits can be effective from trying innovative ways to protect our environment.

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