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EPA chief defends role on new antismog rules

Says White House did not pressure him on key point

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press / March 15, 2008

WASHINGTON - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency rejected suggestions yesterday that the White House forced him to weaken a key part of its new smog requirement after intervention by President Bush.

"I made the decision," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson declared, saying he wanted to "set the record straight" on the issue.

Documents and e-mails that the EPA provided as part of the record on the smog regulation, issued on Wednesday, showed that Bush became personally involved in settling differences between the agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget over a part of the smog rule.

The documents show a disagreement between the EPA and the management and budget office, which reviews regulations, on the amount of protection from ozone, or smog, that should be afforded wildlife, farmlands, parks, and open spaces.

EPA officials had wanted to make the "public welfare" or "secondary" standard stronger than the human health standard, a position also taken by environmentalists and health specialists. But the White House insisted on making both standards identical, according to the documents. The issue went to Bush, who sided with his budget office.

At the conclusion of a conference call with reporters yesterday on a new EPA rule to curb pollution from ships and trains, Johnson discussed the issue.

"Invoking of the executive order [from the White House] did not deal with the stringency" of the public welfare standard, only "the form" it was to take, said Johnson. "I made the decision on the stringency."

The EPA on Wednesday issued a rule that tightened the smog requirements for human health, reducing the allowable concentrations of ozone, or smog, in the air from 80 to 75 parts per billion for air to be deemed healthy. The public welfare standard was set at about the same level, though calculated differently.

The White House defended Bush's action.

"This is not a weakening of regs [regulations] or standards," White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said yesterday. "But it was an effort to make the standards consistent. There's no question we have an interest in how federal regs impact communities."

Fratto said the new standards are the "most stringent smog standards in history" and that communities will have a hard time meeting them. He described the area where Bush intervened as a technical matter.

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