All in the Family

By Michael Fumento

Reason, August-September 1997
Copyright 1997 Reason

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While it’s well understood that the EPA went beyond what it was required to do by the American Lung Association’s successful suit, suggesting that this was a "sweetheart suit," it’s less well known that the EPA regularly funnels money to the ALA and other groups that sue it.

Journalist John Merline, writing in Investor’s Business Daily, and basing his figures on the Federal Assistance Awards Data System, noted that from 1990 to 1995, the EPA gave the ALA more than $5 million.

Yet between 1993 and 1996, the group filed five suits against the EPA. According to Merline, the EPA gave the Natural Resources Defense Council over half a million dollars in 1995, even as the NRDC filed no fewer than 34 suits against the agency from 1993 to 1996. Indeed, the EPA even forked over $150,000 to the NRDC to help defray the cost of the group’s legal fees for suing the agency.

"If you think the EPA is upset" about these suits, a professor of environmental management at the University of Maryland told Merline, "think again. Truth be known, the EPA wants to be sued, because every time they are sued it expands the reach of the Clean Air Act." And EPA’s domain in general.

Both the ALA and the NRDC fired off letters to the paper, claiming that the vast majority of their EPA funding was not for suing the agency. But even if the checks weren’t marked, "To sue our pants off," a dollar is a dollar. Sending a few million bucks to either group for any purpose allows them to increase funds for other purposes, including lawsuits.

Groups like the NRDC and the Environmental Working Group have been extremist since their conception. But the ALA too appears to have gone the way of many civil rights and women’s rights groups. Once they accomplished their original aims, they set newer, ever more radical goals to justify their budgets. And in the last three years, the ALA has taken at least $150,000 from a group called the Association for Responsible Thermal Treatment, which it uses to wage a campaign against cement kilns used to burn hazardous waste. This generous donor is made up of commercial hazardous waste incineration companies: the competitors of the cement kilns. The air about the ALA is dirty indeed.

In addition to handing out taxpayer money to groups that sue it, the EPA greases the palms of groups who lobby for the agency’s agenda. For example, the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, which is private but has federal sponsorship, last August announced in a memorandum that the EPA would give members $100,000 to "to support our activities," including "public service" announcements.

But probably the most effective lobbying has come from the ALA and the NRDC, in the form of studies they have presented which, they say, call for much tighter standards than even the EPA has proposed. The ALA’s "Gambling with Public Health II," for example, pushes a PM standard of 18 micrograms per cubic meter rather than the EPA’s 50. It says that under its own standard, over 178 million persons would live in nonattainment counties, compared to 85 million under the EPA’s proposed standard. The report makes almost no effort to argue that these people really are in any danger.

The NRDC, probably the nation’s most effective (some would say "rabid") environmental group, says pollution-related health problems are much worse than the EPA thinks. "Approximately 64,000 people may die prematurely from heart and lung disease each year due to particulate air pollution," and all but about 8,000 of these deaths could be prevented by adopting even tighter standards than the EPA has proposed, the NRDC claims.

It’s doubtful that either the NRDC or the ALA thinks it can get the EPA to go with the standard it proposes. But is that their aim? "There’s terrific pressure on [EPA] regulators because these groups say there will be almost 70,000 extra deaths a year if the EPA does nothing," says U.C.-Irvine’s Robert Phalen. "These activists are saying, ’How many bodies do you have to have on the street before you act?’ It’s very difficult for an agency to make objective judgments under such pressure."

On the other hand, there’s every reason to think the EPA’s leadership has no desire to withstand the pressure. Reports like the ALA’s and the NRDC’s certainly bolster the EPA’s claim that "[s]ome will contend that we are acting precipitously and others will claim that we are not being protective enough."

Thus, the agency can claim to be taking the moderate position. The standards proposed by the ALA and the NRDC also prepare the way for some date in the next century when the EPA can call once again for ratcheting down the amount of pollution allowed.