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EPA Official Disavows American Lung Association Air-Quality Claims

09/11/2015

By Karen Kerrigan

An official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has disavowed the American Lung Association (ALA) for misrepresenting federal air quality data.  The ALA’s report is being used around the country to support the EPA’s tighter ozone standard, but this is not the first time the report’s “findings” have been criticized or questioned. The latest criticism strikes yet another blow against the credibility of the ALA, which is leading the charge to dramatically tighten the federal ozone standard – despite strong objections from a bipartisan coalition of local and state officials, labor unions and business leaders from across the economy.

Region 7 EPA spokesman David Bryan took aim at the ALA’s “State of the Air” report, which gave an “F” to Cedar County – population 13,952 – in southwestern Missouri. As the Cedar County Republican reports:

“The EPA has nothing to do with that report,” Bryan said of the ALA State of the Air report. He said the report gives a grade and his agency has nothing to do with grades. According to Bryan, the ALA report “takes a hodge podge of statistics” in creating its grades. …

Bryan said he would expect Cedar County to be on the positive side of the EPA’s standards used to determine if the community has too much ozone in the air, and would expect it to continue to meet new EPA standards set to be released in October.

This fact-check from EPA’s regional office in the Kansas City suburbs is remarkable, given how closely the agency’s political appointees and White House officials have been working with the ALA in Washington, D.C. But it’s also consistent with the growing chorus of criticism of the ALA outside of the nation’s capital, in the communities that will suffer the hardship created by lowering the federal ozone standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) into the range of 65 to 70 ppb.

The timing of the EPA criticism could not be worse for the ALA, which is trying to restore its credibility by pushing a new opinion poll on the ozone debate. The ALA claims that the poll shows widespread public support for tighter ozone limits, but the questions behind the poll contain the same misleading claims and omissions that shredded the group’s credibility in the first place.

ALA’s Growing List of Critics

EPA Region 7: “The EPA has nothing to do with that report,” EPA spokesman David told the Cedar County Republican. Bryan said the ALA’s “State of the Air” report used “a hodge podge of statistics” to give a rural county in southwestern Missouri an “F” grade when the area’s air quality trends are positive.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: State air quality officials in Colorado said the ALA’s State of the Air report is “both inaccurate and misrepresents air quality in Colorado.” The officials also complained “it makes our jobs harder when positive trends are being spun the exact opposite way.”

The Denver Post: When the ALA falsely claimed that ozone levels in Colorado have increased since the 1970s, the group was debunked by Denver Post editorial page editor Vincent Carroll. In a column headlined “Playing Chicken Little on Denver’s Air Quality,” Carroll forced the ALA to retract the false claim and gave ALA officials the following admonishment: “[I]t’s one thing to say we have work to do and quite another to misrepresent long-term trends to strengthen your call for action … [I]t’s important to understand where we’ve come from and where we actually are, and not to fudge the data.”

Indiana Department of Environmental Management: Environmental regulators in Indiana issued their own assessment to preemptively debunk the ALA’s “State of the Air” report. “We want people to know, especially in Indiana, that their air is healthy to breathe,” Dan Goldblatt, a spokesman for the state environment department, told E&E News.

Maryland Department of the Environment: A day after the release of the ALA’s “State of the Air” report, environmental regulators in Maryland responded with their own report to correct the record. “They use their own yardstick. We don’t agree with their methodology,” Maryland Department of Environment spokesman Jay Apperson told E&E News.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The ALA’s “State of the Air” report was eviscerated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board. According to the newspaper, the ALA used a reading from a single air monitor, located near an industrial plant, to make alarmist air quality claims about the 12-county Pittsburgh metropolitan region. This “skewed presentation” and “statistical malpractice” resulted in a “bogus” finding that was intended to “alarm and deceive,” the Post-Gazette said. For trafficking in such misinformation, the newspaper called the ALA itself “a pollution source in need of cleanup.”

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: Texas environmental regulators preempted the ALA’s “State of the Air” report with their own findings, which showed “ozone levels in 2014 either equaled or were lower than the best levels ever measured in most areas of the state.” After the ALA’s report was released, state environmental officials provided a statement to E&E News correcting the group’s claim “that ozone levels in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have deteriorated.” In fact, according to state regulators, Dallas-Forth Worth ozone levels dropped 21 percent from 2000 and 2014, even as the region’s population grew by 29 percent.

Hamilton County, Ohio: Holly Christmann, the director of the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services, was forced to submit an op-ed to the Cincinnati Enquirer to debunk alarmist claims based on ALA’s data. The region’s air quality has improved “in every category of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” Christmann wrote, including a 23 percent reduction in ozone since 1990. “Everyone should take a deep breath and know that our air has dramatically improved and continues to get better,” Christmann concluded.

Misleading Push Poll

According to The Hill, the ALA released a national poll Sept. 9 that claims 73 percent of voters “favor stricter ozone limits.” But a quick glance at the questions behind the poll show that the ALA is up to its old tricks.

Voters are asked if they favor or oppose “stricter limits on the amount of smog that power plants, oil refiners and other industrial facilities can release.” Nowhere does the poll mention that in ozone non-attainment areas, those limits are imposed across the entire economy, including the cars that voters drive and in some cases the businesses where they work, not just a handful of sources. Nor does the poll mention that groups representing more than 20,000 local governments across the country – led by the U.S. Conference of Mayors – oppose the EPA’s effort to tighten the existing standard from 75 ppb into the range of 65 to 70 ppb because of the constraints it would impose on economic growth. Nowhere does the poll disclose the serious concerns of state environmental regulators that the EPA’s proposed ozone limit is so strict, it could penalize communities for background levels of ozone over which they have no control – background levels which are getting worse because of pollution drifting into the country from China and other nations. The poll does not mention that EPA’s ozone proposal has even been criticized by supporters of the Obama administration, including prominent backers of the Clean Power Plan.

The ALA poll does not tell voters that ozone levels have fallen dramatically in recent decades and that the existing federal standard was set less than a decade ago. Nor does the poll mention that the existing standard, set in 2008, was only finalized in February 2015, which means it has not had a chance to work. The ALA certainly does not disclose to voters that the Obama administration rejected any tightening of the federal ozone standard in 2011 because of the economic damage it would cause.

Instead, the poll uses a weak caricature of these widespread economic concerns, and asks voters if those concerns are worth “keeping parents in the dark about the true impact of pollution on their children.” In addition to such emotionally charged rhetoric, the ALA once again repeats the claim that tighter ozone limits will reduce asthma cases, ignoring more than a decade of real-world data that shows there is no correlation. In fact, the number of asthma cases grew by millions at the same time as ozone levels were falling.

If the ALA thinks this kind of opinion poll will restore its credibility, which has quickly eroded in the communities with the most at stake in the ozone debate, the ALA should think again.

Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council). The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of the Council.