Obama’s OMB Continues Bush-Era Interference With Public Health Standards

Update: In an interview with the Wonk Room, EPA official Gina McCarthy argues that OMB’s involvement helped strengthen the final standard.

The Obama White House interfered with smog standards at the last minute, preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from properly protecting the health of millions of Americans. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and its subsidiary Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), led by Obama pick Cass Sunstein, oversees regulatory decisions by federal agencies. “The EPA issued a new rule recently on nitrogen dioxide (NO2),” Center for Progressive Reform president Rena Steinzor writes, “but not before it was weakened by OMB. The consequences for the public health are real.” On December 18, the EPA had proposed installing new monitoring stations at all cities with a population of 350,000 or more, but by “the time OIRA completed its review on January 22, the minimum threshold for monitoring stations had been increased to one per 500,000 people.” The Center for Progressive Reform discovered an email from a top EPA official that reveals the agency opposed the White House interference:

The EPA had made its position clear, it turns out. In a January 20th email about the “500,000” proposal, Lisa Heinzerling, the EPA’s Associate Administrator for policy, wrote, “EPA does not support the alternative threshold described in the email below.”

The new standards “will improve air quality, particularly in communities disproportionately impacted by environmental problems.” However, the last-minute interference unnecessarily leaves millions without the same protection. As Matthew Madia relates at OMB Watch, there was no justification offered for the loosening of the standards:

The final rule claims the threshold was raised “after consideration of public comments,” but EPA provides no evidence that the public opposed the lower threshold. The Clean Air Council asked for an even lower threshold, possibly down to 100,000 people, according to a recap of comments in the final rule. Even Dow Chemical Company, which was pushing for a weaker one-hour standard, called the 350,000 person threshold “reasonable.”

When Cass Sunstein was nominated by Obama to run OIRA, environmental watchdogs raised significant concerns that he may share his predecessors’ antiregulatory zeal.

Ironically, Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor, was one of the sharpest critics of Bush White House interference with environmental rules. When the Bush administration wrote a rule to block the Endangered Species Act from addressing the threat of climate change, she said “rule turns the pit bull into a poodle.” Under Ken Salazar, the Obama Department of the Interior has continued to embrace Bush’s “poodle” rule.

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