Report: White House Budget Office Helped Weaken EPA Pollution Rule

Pensacola, Florida. Springfield, Missouri. Fort Wayne, Indiana. All three of those metropolitan areas have populations between 350,000 and 500,000, and all three would have been required to install nitrogen dioxide monitoring stations near major roadways under a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule cracking down on the pollutant.

sunstein.PNGCass Sunstein, chief of the White House budget office's regulatory arm. (Photo: Wonk Room)
But as the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) noted soon after the EPA unveiled its rule, an initial draft setting the minimum population for local air-quality monitoring at 350,000 was changed to 500,000, leaving out cities such as Fort Wayne and effectively weakening the nitrogen dioxide rule's accountability.

Another watchdog group traced the change to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which evaluates new agency regulations through a smaller arm called OIRA (short for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs). The president's nominee to lead OIRA, Cass Sunstein, has taken heat from green groups for his past criticism of government's role in the rule-making process.

What's the significance of the OMB's change to the EPA rule? "The fewer the monitors, the more likely it is that many metropolitan areas will be able to exceed EPA’s limits without detection or correction," CPR president and law professor Rena Steinzor wrote on the group's blog in late January.

Steinzor's post also addressed the significance of the new nitrogen dioxide rule, noting that the pollutant tends to be especially common, and dangerous, in lower-income neighborhoods located near busy roads:

Scientific evidence links human NO2 exposure with various respiratory health problems. ... The biggest source of NO2 pollution is automobile emissions, though power plants and heavy industry are also significant contributors. NO2 pollution levels tend to be greater in urban areas and near major roadways, which means NO2 pollution tends to disproportionately harm the poor and communities of color.

(h/t Wonk Room)