The Work Begins

The Work Begins
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Washington, D.C -- What's a poor agency administrator to do? I doubt EPA head Lisa Jackson feels that way most of the time, but lately her plate is a tad overfull. As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial, she has inherited a virtually clean slate in terms of Clean Air Act regulations, since almost everything the Bush administration tried over eight years -- mostly both illegal and bad -- was thrown out by the courts. But that's a huge regulatory chasm to fill.

Then there's the mess left behind by FEMA toxic trailers and Katrina. The Bush administration evaded the obvious need to provide public-health standards relating to formaldehyde in mobile homes and trailers, and the EPA is only now holding the hearings at which the victims of the toxic trailers can make their case why this should never happen again. Becky Gillette, who led the Sierra Club effort that exposed the threat, has urged the EPA to adopt California's standards. Those standards are projected to cut formaldehyde emissions from building materials by 50 to 75 percent, a move believed to carry only a minimal cost. "So the bigger picture here is that we need much better formaldehyde regulations and standards," Gillette says. And the EPA is listening.

With the Tennessee Valley Authority -- a federal agency -- facing an $825 million cleanup bill for a single coal-waste spill, setting up new regulatory standards for coal waste is a crucial task -- and Administrator Jackson has stepped up to the plate by promising to have regulations in place by the end of this year.

In Michigan, a long-festering dispute about whether to add a Dow Chemical waste site to the Superfund list drew Jackson to intervene as environmentalists had long requested. "I share your concerns about transparency, public participation, and the extensive contamination at the Dow site," Jackson wrote in a March 2 letter. "It is also important to address your concerns about EPA's current approach at the site."

Take carbon dioxide. Two years ago the Supreme Court told the EPA to regulate this pollutant -- the Bush administration stonewalled. This morning, the EPA announced the first national reporting standards for the pollutant. And internal sources indicated that the agency has also set a date -- April 16 -- for issuing the long-awaited "endangerment" finding that will trigger the full applicability of the Clean Air Act to CO2. After years of delay by the previous administration, the Obama administration's quick action to study and control global warming pollution comes as a breath of fresh air. This is yet more evidence that President Obama has ended the Bush administration's war on science once and for all.

Altogether, it's an enormous agenda, and the agency is moving at almost superhuman speed. But, without resources, this will all bog down as these announcements of intentions to follow the law and protect the public move into actual regulatory fine print. The Bush-era EPA was stripped of capacity in part to make sure that it couldn't inadvertently get to these problems. Jackson will need more horses. But it appears that President Obama understands just how big a lift the EPA faces. In his new budget, he has increased the agency's funding by 34 percent.

A little-noted feature of the Bush years was that, while it was an era of "big government conservatism," natural-resource protecting and public health were the two areas of the federal budget that were cut most deeply. It's good to see the pendulum beginning to swing back.

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