Politics

NYT: New EPA method could limit pollution death estimates

Order intended to roll back Obama-era rule

(CNN) - The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to use a different method to estimate the "future health risks of air pollution" in an analysis of a proposed new rule, The New York Times reported Monday.

Citing conversations with a handful of people familiar with the plans, the Times said the EPA's new technique could change a 2018 estimate by the Trump administration that said there could be 1,400 premature deaths each year due to a new agency rule on pollution from coal plants.

The agency's proposed rule, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, would roll back Obama-era regulations on coal-fueled power plants. It would allow states to set their own emissions standards for carbon dioxide from power plants, instead of imposing a national standard.

The different method for evaluating health impacts, according to the paper, is notable "because it discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed EPA methods and relies on unfounded medical assumptions."

"No change to this scientific method will be made unless and until the new approach has been peer reviewed," EPA spokesman James Hewitt said in a statement to CNN.

The Times noted that the estimate derived from the new technique would make it easier to defend the new Trump administration rule because it would "assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires." The change would mean that "on paper," a potential increase in air pollution could still mean there would be "far fewer deaths from heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease," the Times reported.

The five people who spoke to the Times, all of whom are current or former agency officials, said the new technique "would be used in the agency's analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June." The inclusion of the new technique in the agency's final analysis of the rule was also confirmed to the paper by William L. Wehrum, the EPA's air quality chief.

"EPA is constantly evaluating approaches to improve transparency and communicate uncertainty regarding costs and benefits of its regulatory actions," Hewitt said.

The new methodology EPA is considering is part of its regular review of national air quality standards. The agency is working on updating the standards by 2020. They were last updated in 2012.

"EPA sets national ambient air quality standards at a level that protects public health with a margin of safety. A longstanding and important question is how much benefit is derived by further reducing ambient levels below the national standards," Hewitt said. "We are considering changes to how such benefits are calculated."

Last fall, CNN reported that after then-acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler appointed five new members to the agency's independent committee that provides advice to the EPA on national air quality standards, some scientists became concerned that the committee would not be able to properly advise the agency on its policies and procedures regarding national air quality standards.

"Protecting the public's health from dangerous amounts of pollutants in the air that we all breathe is the mandate of this agency," Jack Harkema, a professor of pathobiology and diagnostic investigation at Michigan State University and former member of the committee, previously told CNN. "This cannot be done without careful, deliberate and knowledgeable understanding (of) this complex environmental health issue. Multidisciplinary teams of scientific experts must be free to conduct thorough peer-review of the pertinent science. Millions of lives are at stake."

CNN's Rene Marsh contributed to this report.


Editor Notes

This Just In