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Context of 'January 14, 2002: EPA Officials with Industry Ties Decide to Push Questionable Formaldehyde Regulation Policies'

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The court orders the EPA to come up with regulations governing formaldehyde emissions at wood products facilities by February 27, 2004 (see February 2004). (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)

EPA staffers meet with the agency’s top pollution regulator, Jeffrey Holmstead, in his fifth-floor conference room to discuss a February 2004 deadline for creating a rule governing formaldehyde emissions at wood products plants. Holmstead, a lawyer, formerly worked at Latham & Watkins representing one of the nation’s largest plywood producers. Also present at the meeting is William Wehrum, the EPA air office’s general counsel, who had also represented timber interests as a partner of the same law firm. They meet with Timothy Hunt, a lobbyist for the American Forest & Paper Association who is an old acquaintance of Holmstead, and with Claudia M. O’Brien, the association’s lawyer. O’Brien had previously been a law partner of Holmstead’s and Wehrum’s at Latham & Watkins. During the meeting she proposes to exempt “low-risk” plywood, particleboard and other plants from strict emission controls, arguing that such facilities are often located in isolated areas where their emissions pose a relatively small risk to public health. She also contends that the expense of adding new controls to the plants, which the industry complains could cost as much as $1 billion, would make them vulnerable to foreign competition. Holmstead likes the idea and decides that the agency should push the proposal, despite opinions from EPA career attorneys that the exemption would violate the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments (see March 2003). (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)

A lawyer in the EPA’s general counsel’s office writes a confidential memo warning about the legal vulnerability of the proposed exemption (see January 14, 2002) for wood product plants from formaldehyde emission standards. The lawyer writes that the proposed exemption would result “in a regulatory approach equivalent to the one Congress specifically rejected” in 1990. “EPA would have a difficult time articulating any rational basis to defend such a… scheme.” (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)

The National Cancer Institute publishes a study demonstrating that 25,000 workers exposed to formaldehyde had an increased risk of leukemia. The EPA will ignore the results of this study when it creates a new federal rule regulating formaldehyde emissions in February 2004 (see September 2002). (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health completes a study of 10,000 workers who have been exposed to formaldehyde and find that they have an increased risk of leukemia. Though not published until March, it is posted on the institute’s website in early 2004. The EPA does not consider the results of this study when it creates a new federal rule for regulating formaldehyde emissions in February 2004 (see September 2002). (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meets its February 27, 2004 deadline to come up with a new federal rule regulating formaldehyde emissions. Ignoring the opinion of experts, the EPA did not take into account the findings of two recent studies (see November 2003) (see Early 2004) that had found that workers who were exposed to formaldehyde were at an elevated risk of leukemia. The EPA said it did not have time to incorporate the two findings before the deadline. Though extensions for such deadlines are often given, the agency did not request one. Instead, the EPA relied on a cancer risk assessment by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, a private, nonprofit research organization, funded primarily by chemical companies. That assessment was about 10,000 times weaker than the level previously used by the EPA in setting standards for formaldehyde exposure. The new federal rule is modeled on a proposal that had been designed by a lobbyist for the wood products industry (see January 14, 2002). It creates a new category of “low-risk” plants, which gives the agency the authority to decide on a plant-by-plant basis which facilities pose a risk to public health. It initially exempts eight wood products plants from having to install pollution controls for formaldehyde and other emissions, but could eventually extend the exemptions to 147 or more of the 223 facilities nationwide. The exemption allows qualifying plants to legally skirt pollution-control requirements that had been mandated by a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act requiring all large industrial plants to use “best available” technology in order to reduce emissions of 189 substances. Though backers of the new rule claim that it does not violate the amendment, the lawmakers who wrote the legislation disagree. “I don’t have any doubt but that is a way to get around the policy which we worked hard to achieve,” former Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.) will tell the Los Angeles Times in May. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) similarly says the exemption is “directly contrary to our intent.” The new rule will save the industry as much as $66 million annually for about 10 years in potential emission control costs. (Miller and Hamburger 5/21/2004)


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