Bureaucracy Runs Amok

Commentary by Pete du Pont

It sounds like something from a Grade B movie.

A government agency, saying much of the nation faces an air quality crisis, announces a new rule setting standards for cities and states based on research that is kept secret. ("Trust us," the agency says.)

The agency acknowledges that much of the nation will be unable to meet the standards under any circumstances. Still the agency requires that taxpayers in some cities and states spend millions and billions of dollars in the vain effort. In addition, the entire states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware will violate the new standards.

Even nature doesn't comply with the standard; the haze that gives the Smoky Mountains their name is in compliance with current environmental standards but will be unacceptable under the new standards.

Unfortunately, this is not part of a Grade B movie. This is a true story about the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency whose latest proposals have little regard for Congress or common sense, but seems more out of control some times than others. This is one of those times.

Under various Clean Air Acts, the EPA has the responsibility and authority to set acceptable levels for, regulate the release of, and monitor and enforce the standards for certain pollutants including particulate matter (dust, pollen and soot) and ground level ozone (produced, among other ways, as a by-product of fossil fuel use and commonly known as smog). Over the last 25 years the levels of these pollutants have declined substantially. The EPA takes the credit, pointing to the clean air laws - though this is debatable since levels of the pollutants had been falling more rapidly throughout the 1960s prior to the first Clean Air Act.

The EPA is supposed to review its standards for various pollutants periodically. The American Lung Association, in conjunction with several environmental organizations, successfully sued the EPA, charging that it had failed to review the evidence concerning one pollutant - particulate matter - in a timely manner as required by law. When the EPA conducted its review, it concluded that stricter standards for particulates were justified. For good measure, it decided to tighten standards for ozone at the same time.

But the whole episode smelled of something besides air pollution. In the first place, the EPA proposed the new rules the day before Thanksgiving, while Congress was recessed and people's minds were elsewhere. And EPA Administrator Carol Browner only gave the public 60 days to comment, rather than the more usual 90 to 120 days. Evidently the EPA picked a holiday and tried to speed the process through because Ms. Browner feared that a rule suddenly making some 200 to 300 counties lawbreakers would be controversial. She was right. The outcry was immediate and so severe that Ms. Browner had to extend the public comment period by an additional 21 days.

Second, Ms. Browner coupled a new ozone standard with the particulate matter standard. The evidence in support of the former is even shakier and the costs of implementation possibly even greater than the latter, but she apparently felt one could piggyback to passage with the other.

Environmental and public health groups have been trying to tie an increase in the rate of asthma in the United States to air quality. But ozone rates have fallen dramatically over the last 20 years while asthma rates have been on the rise. And comprehensive studies from Europe, among others, indicate that increasingly sedentary lifestyles and indoor air problems have more to do with the recent increase in asthma cases than does ozone.

The EPA stance completely ignores the social cost of the proposed standards: it will require the spending of billions that could have gone to more pressing health problems on actions that, even if fully implemented, would only result in marginal improvements in public health.

Many doctors, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Indian Business Association, the National Association of Neighborhoods, several labor unions and industry groups, among others, have noted that the greatest health threats facing citizens, especially the inner city poor, are poverty and the lack of access to health insurance and preventive medical care due to unemployment. To the extent that these rules either increase unemployment or lower the economic growth rate, they will directly contribute to worsened rather than improved health, especially among the poor.

These proposals haven't become law yet - so there is still time for Congress to save the nation from bureaucratic idiocy. And idiocy is the proper term, as a look at the so-called science behind this project confirms. I'll deal with that and some of the economic arguments in a separate column next week.