EPA To Release Proposed Lead Standard Soon

April 2, 2008

Hot on the heels of the announcement of EPA's controversial revised ground-level ozone standard, the agency is required by court order to release its proposal for a revised airborne lead standard no later than May 1, 2008. A final rule is required by Sept. 1, 2008.

EPA's Nov. 1, 2007, Staff Paper on the lead standard says the scientific evidence indicates that lead causes a wide range of health problems, that there is no safe level of lead exposure for people, and that lead also harms many animals and plants.

Elimination of leaded gas in recent decades has contributed to a huge reduction in airborne lead, with 1997 levels at about 2% of 1970 levels, according to the EPA. But the agency says high airborne lead levels remain in numerous urban areas and near certain industrial facilities, coming from sources such as lead smelters, waste incinerators, utilities, lead-acid battery manufacturers, and some general aviation planes. It also remains a trace contaminant in diesel fuel and gasoline. The agency's allocation for current lead sources is 52% from metals processing, 16% from waste disposal, 13% from fuel combustion, 13% from non-road sources, and 6% from other sources (EPA information on lead).

The Natural Resources Defense Council (Gina Solomon, 415-875-6100) says there are still nearly 10,000 industrial sources of airborne lead in the US that each emit anywhere from 1 to 119,000 pounds of lead every year. The advocacy group provides a map of emission volumes in each county. Several hundred counties bear the burden of at least 2,000 pounds of emissions each year.

The EPA Staff Paper recommends a major tightening of the standard, lowering it from its current level of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), set in 1978, to somewhere in the range of 0.02 to 0.2 ug/m3 (with the lower end of the range generally deemed acceptable by dozens of health and environmental advocacy groups; see NRDC et al. letter of Jan. 16, 2008). The Staff Paper also recommends that the standard should be calculated either on a monthly basis, or quarterly as it is now.

In addition, the Staff Paper recommends that the agency not remove lead from its list of six major "criteria" air pollutants that it regulates. The agency is considering such a move, according to its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) released Dec. 5, 2007 (fact sheet). Critics, including NRDC and dozens of other organizations, say that the language of the Clean Air Act forbids such a move, since lead remains a significant threat, and no other regulatory program can provide adequate protection. In addition to these issues, EPA has been transitioning to a new review process during the development of the revised lead standard. As part of the new process, it is using an ANPR for the first time. EPA says the intent of the new process, and the ANPR, is to both streamline the process and broaden participation in it. In the future, there will be no Staff Paper, just an ANPR.

Critics say the new process will substantially increase political influence and reduce consideration of scientific information. Among the critics are the agency's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which sent a sharply critical letter to EPA on Jan. 22, 2008 (see EPA-CASAC-08-007), saying that the ANPR is "entirely unsuitable and inadequate for use in rulemaking" and that it "represented a remarkable weakening of the scientific foundation of the... review process".

CASAC recommended a number of ways to improve the new review process - which is also being used for upcoming revisions for the nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide standards - in a Jan. 23, 2008, letter to EPA.

When EPA releases its proposed rule, it likely will be available here.

Many potential sources for your stories are included in the inventory of documents related to this rulemaking.

You may be able to get a feel for airborne lead levels in your audience area using AirData's Annual Summary Table Query,though the number of counties with monitoring stations is limited.