The White House and the US courts are tightening rules on pollution and chemicals

A clear shift is taking place in the US under President Barack Obama toward tightening environmental regulations, representing a significant departure from the George Bush led White House. During the previous administration, actions of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trended toward relaxing these rules, which govern things like regulation of hazardous chemicals and toxic pollution.

After less than a month in charge, the Obama administration is distinguishing itself from the policies of Bush in many areas affecting public health and the environment. These range from pushing for a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade programme - under which the government sets a limit on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted - to moving forward with regulating mercury emissions.

The Obama administration backed the first-ever global treaty to control mercury releases on 20 February 2009. Under the landmark decision, the governments of over 140 countries agreed to begin negotiations on an international mercury treaty to address world-wide emissions and discharges of the chemical. The plan includes sharply reducing the global supply of mercury, as well as lowering the amount of mercury contained in products like thermometers.

The Bush administration opposed international efforts to limit the use of mercury, which EPA itself identifies as a neurotoxin.  But on 23 February, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the current EPA to issue new regulations on mercury emissions and other pollutants from US coal-fired power plants. The country’s highest court refused to consider a case appealing the decision by a lower federal court to overturn the previous EPA’s Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), which allowed exemptions to the federal Clean Air Act for coal power plants. 

Court rulings

The lower court had ruled last year that EPA, under Bush, had violated the Clean Air Act by evading mandatory cuts in mercury pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Also in late February, a federal appeals court ruled that the Bush-era clean air standards were deficient, and sent them back to be revamped by the current EPA. During Bush’s tenure, the agency had decided to keep annual airborne particulate standards at the same level despite a recommendation from its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council to strengthen the standard for long-term exposure from 15 micrograms per cubic metre of air to 12 to 14 micrograms per cubic metre.

In its opinion, the court found that EPA ’did not adequately explain’ why an annual level of 15 micrograms per cubic metre is sufficient to protect the public health while also safeguarding against short-term exposures and morbidity affecting vulnerable subpopulations. The court held that ’in several respects,’ EPA’s refusal to adopt stronger standards was ’contrary to law and unsupported by adequately reasoned decision-making’.

Beyond the courts, significant action is also taking place on Capitol Hill. An appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009 that passed the House of Representatives on 25 February includes a provision to reverse a Bush-era change that weakened the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) - a public EPA database containing information on toxic chemical releases and waste management activities reported annually. The language prevents EPA from spending money to continue implementing the new rule, which changed the requirements for how much information facilities needed to report on the pollution that they release. 

Originally, if an entity emitted waste involving any of several hundred chemicals of concern that added up to 500 pounds (227 kilograms) or more, they had to report in detail on the quantities and locations of their toxic chemical releases. The TRI modification under Bush, which took effect in December 2006, boosted that threshold to 5000 pounds. It is currently being challenged by a lawsuit brought by thirteen states.

There is some expectation that a similar provision to undo these TRI changes will be included in the Senate’s forthcoming version of the 2009 appropriations bill, and it may survive in the final bill sent to Obama. At the same time, the new head of EPA, Lisa Jackson, is being lobbied to restore the TRI programme to the original reporting standards.

Obama budget

Meanwhile, Obama has proposed a significant funding increase for EPA in fiscal year 2010. The agency would receive a 35 per cent boost under a blueprint budget proposal unveiled by the president on 26 February. The $2.7 billion ($1.9 billion) bump would bring the agency’s budget to $10.5 billion. That money would be on top of $7 billion that EPA received in the recently enacted economic stimulus package, to be spent in 2009 and 2010.

The White House’s proposal for EPA includes a $19 million budget increase for a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and related activities that will provide data needed to implement a comprehensive climate change bill. It also would fund the agency’s operating budget, which comprises its core regulatory, research, and enforcement activities, at $3.9 billion - the highest level ever.

’With these proposed resources, and the president’s strong environmental agenda, it should be overwhelmingly clear that EPA is back on the job,’ Jackson stated.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA