EPA Official: OMB Involvement In NO2 Standard Was A ‘Significant Win’ For Public Health

Gina McCarthy
Gina McCarthy

Last week, the Wonk Room reported that the Environmental Protection Agency had modified a pollution standard at the behest of the White House Office of Management and Budget. The EPA had proposed building the first roadside network of monitors for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in communities with a population of 350,000 or more, but at the last minute, the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs convinced them to change the threshold to 500,000-person communities. In an email, EPA official Lisa Heinzerling told OMB that “EPA does not support the alternative threshold.” Government watchdogs at the Center for Progressive Reform and OMB Watch were shocked, as the change smelled of the history of Bush-era OMB interference with public health standards.

Nitrogen dioxide pollution, predominantly produced by automotive vehicles, is a particular problem in economically depressed communities that lie near major highways. The EPA’s scientists found that a network of 167 stations would be needed to provide sufficient coverage. Their original rule used a Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) population threshold of 350,000 people to mandate the location of each of the stations. Raising the threshold to 500,000 people would have the effect of eliminating 41 monitors from the network, something the EPA felt was “key” to avoid.

However, in a telephone interview with the Wonk Room, EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation assistant administrator Gina McCarthy explained that OMB’s involvement actually improved the final standard, strengthening the EPA’s ability to protect vulnerable communities from air pollution:

The assumption seems to be that OMB interfered. They asked us, “Did we respond to the states’ comments?” We realized we could design the monitoring system in a better way than we had proposed. We could take the 40 monitors and place them by roadways near our most vulnerable populations. It was a significant win for us to be able to do that. It didn’t diminish the system.

The OMB asked EPA to consider whether state-level concerns raised through the interagency review process about the system had been addressed. Although some of those comments were purely oppositional, other “more thoughtful comments raised whether 350,000 level could end up with monitors on the same strip of highway and at intersections far from where populations were actually located.” The EPA found out that these concerns were valid. “In very large counties out west with a population greater than 350,000,” said McCarthy, “we can have peak exposure in the middle of nowhere.” The 500,000-person threshold would eliminate these siting problems. Under the redesigned rule, the network will stay the same size, but 40 monitors will be placed at the regional administrators’ discretion to serve vulnerable communities:

Development of EPA NO2 Monitoring Rule
CBSA population threshold Number of stations Description
Proposed rule 350,000 167 Too many poorly located monitors
Interagency suggestion 500,000 126 Insufficient network
Final rule 500,000, plus vulnerable communities 167 Full network with siting flexibility

Heinzerling’s email opposing the 500,000 threshold, McCarthy explained, referred specifically to language that would have reduced the network by 40 monitors. “The key was that we didn’t lose any monitors proposed,” McCarthy said. In fact, this rulemaking marks the first time the EPA has specifically addressed vulnerable communities. The EPA intends to use the stations in vulnerable communities as multipollutant platforms.

In conclusion, McCarthy said that the OMB’s involvement inspired the EPA to address previously overlooked flaws, crafting a system that gives the EPA more power to protect communities from dirty air:

There was no arm-twisting involved. It was a valid question that sparked our energy to get more out of this than we could have otherwise.

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