The Geneva Steel Co. in Provo, Utah, provides one particularly vivid illustration. Ten years ago Dr. C. Arden Pope, an economist at Brigham Young University, got some students to start examining hospital admissions in Provo, cross-referencing them to levels of production at the Provo steel plant. The students' findings were dramatic. When Geneva Steel was running full-tilt, admissions for lung ailments shot up, with the rate doubling for young children. The test had the virtue of extreme clarity. The area is inhabited by Mormons, who don't smoke, and there is no other industry. The perpetrators were clear enough: tiny particles from the steel plant, one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. Pope's study caused a huge commotion in the enviro-scientific and enviro-bureaucratic circles. Other studies confirmed the particularly lethal effect of fine particulates containing arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, vanadium, and zinc. The EPA's previous focus had been on large particulates, such as road dust, fly ash, cement kiln dust, and other construction-related pollution.
In anticipation of the EPA report, industry lobbies--among them the Air Quality Standards Coalition spearheaded by Geneva Steel--tried to discredit the health data and science while simultaneously stressing that the utilities, steel plants, and refineries had done all they could do, and that once again the regulatory axe should fall on the motorist and the dry cleaner down the block. Speaking for the American Petroleum Institute, Paul Bailey said that fine particulate matter was no big deal and people seemed "actually to adapt to it." Speaking for the Automobile Manufacturers, Gerald Esper said that the publicity over increased deaths caused by exposure to fine particulates was exaggerated because "many of the deaths are of elderly people and others who are sick who would have died within days anyway."
By late last summer the 1,500 page report was tossed nervously around the government, from the EPA to OMB and through Al Gore's office at the White House. The EPA's scientists recommended that standards on ozone and fine particulates be drastically tightened. Carol Browner, the EPA's head, had given herself bureaucratic cover by establishing a review group of industry scientists. The latter group recommended far more modest tightening of the standards. Browner ended up splitting the difference between the two. As a result, the EPA is estimating that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people will continue to die each year from breathing toxic air.
During her press conference on November 29, Browner went out of her way to assure industry that the new regulations would in no way be draconian (i.e., have teeth) and that she would be pushing for "a common-sense and cost-effective option for implementation of the standards." In fact, industry seems to have won by the usual tactic of delay. The EPA's new regulations are still works in progress. We are currently in a public comment period, but it appears that cities won't have to submit plans to meet the new standards until 2002, and won't be held accountable for meeting such standards for more than a decade thereafter.