Assault on the Clean Air Act

As predicted, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Stephen Johnson has once again overruled his scientific advisers, announcing new smog regulations far too weak to prevent widespread health problems. Rather than cutting smog levels to 60 parts per million (ppm), the level recommended by scientists, Johnson ordered only a token change, reducing the federal standard from 80ppm to 75ppm.

That alone would have been enough to set greens howling: There has already been talk of lawsuits to force the EPA to impose stricter regulations. But Johnson wasn’t done yet: In virtually the same breath, he went on to propose the wholesale evisceration of the Clean Air Act, the keystone legislation that sets the terms under which the EPA regulates airborne pollution.


At present, the law says that in regulating the air we breathe, the EPA’s sole priority must be protecting the public health. Only after reasonable safety standards are set can factors like economic impact be taken into consideration. Now, though, Johnson is asking lawmakers to scrap those safeguards and grant him the explicit right to prioritize corporate interests above the public health.

In practice, that might not make much difference to the way the EPA handles its regulatory deliberations. It’s abundantly clear that in arriving at the current smog “compromise” Johnson illegally weighed the impact on industry against the potential health benefits, receiving plenty of friendly advice from industry lobbyists and even direct orders from President Bush not to clamp down too hard on Big Business. 

Still, swapping lobbyists’ de facto influence for a de jure corporate veto on environmental regulations would be disastrous. The threat of legal action has consistently been the only way to cajole or coerce the EPA into carrying out its mandate; giving Johnson’s agency the legal right to pander to corporate interests would undermine one of the few defenses we have left.

Thankfully, congressional Democrats are unlikely to give Johnson’s proposals the time of day. Even so, this week’s events are a further sign – were one needed – of just how far the EPA has fallen under its current leadership. Underlining the point, union leaders representing 10,000 agency employees now say they will no longer cooperate with Johnson’s management team, accusing him of abusing his position and riding roughshod over scientific evidence.  

In any other organization, a manager who had so thoroughly lost both public credibility and the respect of his workforce would swiftly be removed from office. Unfortunately, President Bush seems to believe that managerial incompetence and contempt for the environment are exactly what’s called for in an EPA chief. November can’t come soon enough.

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