Science & Technology in Congress
Since the proposed National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) were announced in the Federal Register in December 1996, Congress has conducted over fifteen hearings to examine and debate this issue. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner has testified over a dozen times, and other hearings have included witnesses from EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the agricultural community, construction community, and local governments. At issue are the proposed air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter which are stricter than in past years. These standards fall within the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which established the NAAQS in 1970.
The center of the debate is on particulate matter, and specifically on two issues: whether the standards should be based on public health considerations alone, and whether the scientific evidence behind the new standards is sufficient to support it. At a recent hearing before the House Science Committee, EPA Administrator Carol Browner reiterated that the statutes outlined in the CAA restrict establishing new standards based on issues other than health. The concern on Capitol Hill is that the cost of establishing new standards for particulate matter will unduly burden small communities and other urban areas. At an April hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, a small, local government representative stated that they viewed the new standards as an unfunded mandate that would devistate their economy.
While the scientific evidence behind the impact of ozone on public health are generally agreed upon by both the scientific community and the legislative branch, the scientific evidence on particulate matter, specifically on "fine" particles which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, has drawn heated arguments. At the crux of the problem is the body of evidence analyzed in the establishment of the new standard. Scientific studies on the impact of particulate matter on public health falls into two categories: short-term and long-term research. The amount of short-term research conducted on this issue is more extensive and the results have shown a "reasonable" amount of correlation. Only two long-term studies have been conducted, both showing a greater association of causality. The two studies, one conducted by Harvard University known as the "6-City Study," have become the target of congressional leaders who view them as an insufficient body of evidence to support the stricter standards.
Rep. David McIntosh (R-IN) chairman of the House Government Reform Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee has accused the EPA of concealing information from Congress on the new standards. McIntosh also said that he would submit a letter to Harvard University requesting the mortality data in the "6-City Study." Harvard University has so far declined to release the data, citing its concern for the privacy of the study subjects. As an alternative to releasing the data, Harvard University sent a letter to the Health Effects Insitute (HEI) requesting that they conduct an independent review of the study. HEI has accepted the offer made by Harvard with conditions attached. For example, HEI will require that the results of their independent review be made public.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review the NAAQS every five years to ensure that they still meet public health needs. Under court order the EPA must file a final air quality standard by July 19.