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by Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPR Blog

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in a tough position on coal ash.  If you are African American and low-income, you have a 30 percent greater chance of living near a big pit of this toxic brew than a white American, so Jackson correctly decided that such an important environmental justice issue should be at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s agenda. But Jackson was also taking on Big Coal, a special interest historically near and dear to swing voters in Ohio and Illinois.  Nevertheless, this sturdy “eco-warrior,” as she was recently dubbed by Rolling Stone, marched forward, right into the basement of the White House and the chilling influence of Cass Sunstein and the economists at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Jackson’s tough, but as yet secret, regulatory proposal arrived in crisp fall weather, only to be greeted by a tsunami of industry lobbyists, who visited and revisited OIRA.  By the time the spring flowers were out, Jackson was forced to take a pass on getting hard-hitting regulation on a speedy path to implementation.  After the long scuffle with OIRA, she instead announced that EPA was considering two strikingly different alternatives, thereby postponing any definitive action for at least six months and, far more likely, a year or more.  Then, to add insult to injury, she stepped in between angry activists and OIRA, trying in vain to slap lipstick on a not particularly cute pig.

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by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials just finished their phone-in press conference to announce their action regarding regulation of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

In its press release, EPA describes its action this way:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

And it quotes EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson saying:

The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash. We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected.

But after listening to the press conference, and as I read the 563-page document EPA just posted on its Web site,  I have a hard time understanding how this is more than the Obama administration punting on making a decision here.

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A month after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a small team of public health experts prepared a report identifying the potential health hazards and making strong recommendations for protective action for the cleanup workers.   The team included Eula Bingham, PhD (former OSHA chief), Matt Gillen (now at NIOSH), Mark Catlin (now at SIEU), Don Elisburg, and Jane Seegal.  The team had been assembled at the invitation of the Alaska Commissioner of Labor after concerns were expressed

“about whether the cleanup workers’ health and safety have been adequately protected.  Among other things, workers have been observed with oil-soaked clothing and with oil on their faces and hands.”

The report describes the physical, chemical and work organization hazards encountered by the 4,000 cleanup workers, from toxins in the oil and dispersing agents, long work hours in remote areas, to slippery surfaces and dangerous animals.  Many of the same hazards will be faced by emergency response and cleanup workers in the Gulf Coast tackling the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The team’s 1989 report continued:

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by Richard Denison, PhD, cross-posted from EDF Blog

The Washington Post ran a front-page article Saturday, written by Spencer Hsu, which reported the auction sale by FEMA of most of the 120,000 notorious formaldehyde-tainted trailers it had purchased five years ago to house the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  The article cites FEMA as saying that “wholesale buyers from the auction must sign contracts attesting that trailers will not be used, sold or advertised as housing, and that trailers will carry a sticker saying, ‘Not to be used for housing’.”

Think that’s likely to be enough? 

Think again. 

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Following Tim Dickinson’s Rolling Stone article about what Lisa Jackson is accomplishing at EPA, John B. Judis publishes a piece in the New Republic about the Obama “revolution” going on as Obama appointees at multiple federal agencies enthusiastically enforce laws intended to keep our air, food, drus, and workplaces safe. Judis contrasts previous Republican agency heads to Obama appointees as EPA, OSHA, FDA, and FEMA, and rattles off the budget increases that will allow several agencies to step up enforcement activities.

I’m not as optimistic as Judis that Cass Sunstein’s appointment to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs signals a complete about-face from the previous administration’s roadblock-to-regulation approach. (Rena Steinzor and her colleagues at the Center for Progressive Reform have voiced concerns about Sunstein; see here and here, for instance.) Judis is right, though, to highlight OIRA as a key determinant in the face of federal agencies’ regulatory activities, and he provides an interesting summary of the use of cost-benefit analysis over the past few decades.

An otherwise optimistic article ends with a note of warning. Judis cautions:

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I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints recently about Obama’s failure to achieve legislation on healthcare or climate change during his first year in office, despite the fact that Congress is to blame for both these failures. What Obama does have more control over is the activities of federal agencies, whose leaders are presidentially appointed.

A recent Rolling Stone article by Tim Dickinson showcases what one agency head, EPA’s Lisa Jackson, has accomplished over the past several months. While her record hasn’t been perfect – her early approval of several mountaintop-removal mining permits was a big disappointment – it demonstrates what kinds of things a committed administration can do regardless of whether or not Congress is willing to move forward.

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Although the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act requires chemical manufacturers to alert the government about new chemicals they plan to market, companies can keep that information a secret from the public by claiming that disclosure could harm their business. A few EPA employees have access to the information, but can’t share it with other state and federal health officials, first responders, or the public.

This “confidential business information” designation is widely used and easily abused. EPA told the Government Accountability Office that roughly 95% of premanufacture notices contain some information identified as confidential by chemical companies, and a 1992 EPA study found extensive use of inappropriate CBI claims. The agency hasn’t performed a more recent study, and it told GAO that it every year it can only challenge about 14 claims of CBI that it suspects of being inappropriate. When the agency does challenge claims, chemical companies withdraw nearly all of the claims in question.

This situation may be changing. The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton reports that Steve Owens, assistant administrator of the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances at EPA, came to the agency in July and has since ended confidentialty protection for 530 chemicals. It seems that these weren’t tough calls to make; Eilperin reports, “In those cases, manufacturers had claimed secrecy for chemicals they had promoted by name on their Web sites or detailed in trade journals.” She also gives an example of a situation where ease of chemical-information access can make a difference:

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by Ken Ward, Jr. cross-posted from Coal Tattoo   [or as Grist reports: Science confirms that blowing up mountains harms mountains]

“Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses.”

That quote above is the conclusion of a blockbuster study by a group of the nation’s top scientists, detailing the incredibly damaging environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and the failed efforts at reclaiming mined land or mitigating the effects.  Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings, the paper calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop removal mining permits unless new mining and reclamation techniques “can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems.”

According to the paper:

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Back in 2008, the EPA went against the advice of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and set the limit for ground-level ozone at 75ppb. Today, the agency has announced it will set the primary standard at between 60 and 70 ppb measured over eight hours, which is what the CASAC had recommended. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports:

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by James Goodwin, cross-posted from CPRBlog

While the EPA announced Thursday that it was delaying a decision on issuing a proposed rule for coal ash, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has already hosted 10 meetings with industry representatives in recent months on the issue.  The 10 meetings — the most on any topic at OIRA so far in the Obama Administration, according to records on its website — were completely outside of EPA’s rulemaking process.  In that process, once a proposed rule is issued, industries have ample opportunity to give comment and present their case.  The EPA is required by law to examine and respond to those comments.  No law requires the White House to hear industry pleas, let alone before the notice and comment period has begun.

Coal ash comprises all the solid waste from the burning of coal to generate power. Chock-full of toxic substances, coal ash presents a serious public health and environmental threat if its disposal is not carefully regulated.  Unfortunately, that just happens to be the present state of affairs, as EPA has largely neglected the issue of regulating coal ash disposal for over 25 years.  With virtually no regulatory oversight, power plants have been content to dump the spent coal ash in shallow holes or pile it up and then build weak earthen walls around the stuff in an inadequate attempt to keep it contained.  The dangers of this latter method of disposal were tragically demonstrated a year ago Tuesday (12/22/08), when an earthen wall in Kingston, Tennessee collapsed, resulting in the release of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash into a nearby river.

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