WU law clinic forces change to EPA lead rules
The Environmental Protection Agency set new standards for airborne lead levels on Oct. 15 following legal action of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University, on behalf of the Missouri town of Herculaneum.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment requested that the clinic (IEC) represent it in the case against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after Herculaneum residents complained of lead pollution from a nearby lead processing plant.
The IEC, an organization in the School of Law, provides pro bono legal services to St. Louis area organizations and individuals while providing an educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students in law and environmental students.
According to Maxine Lipeles, director of the IEC and senior lecturer in the School of Law, the new standard for airborne lead levels, as a result of the IEC’s legal action, is 10 times more stringent than the old standard, which had not been changed since 1978 despite studies indicating that even low levels of lead are harmful, especially to children’s health.
Prior to the lawsuit, the EPA did not believe there was a problem with the old standard, Lipeles said.
“The EPA basically thought the problem was solved. It was off their agenda. But the medical science was showing much smaller amounts than previously thought were harmful to children’s health,” she said. “It became clear that there was an extensive problem with contamination and recontamination. The existing standard wasn’t protecting Herculaneum.”
The IEC filed a lawsuit against the EPA forcing it to review the current standard. The EPA is bound by law to do so every five years, but the last time the lead standard was actually reviewed was 14 years ago, and no change was made.
Following the lawsuit, the IEC remained active in the review of the standard, providing comments on each technical document released by the EPA.
The new guideline closely follows the recommendations of governmental and outside scientists, IEC Engineering and Science Fellow Kate Pawasarat, who has also worked on EPA Superfund projects, said.
This accomplishment, however, was far from assured, according to Pawasarat. In other recent cases, the EPA set new levels for two pollutants—ozone and PM2.5—that were higher than levels researchers suggested were safe.
“We’d seen what had happened with the other two pollutants and we were concerned [the EPA’s decisions were] following a trend against what the scientists were saying,” Pawasarat said.
Despite the successful outcome of the legal action, the results of the case are still not perfect, according to Lipeles.
“Our clients were happy with the outcome, but there was some last minute maneuvering by the Office of Management and Budget on behalf of industry,” she said.
Some of the details of how the lead levels are to be detected may have been tailored to suit the interests of the lead processing industry, and industry members met with the Office of Management and Budget behind closed doors late in the process, Lipeles said. The IEC is currently looking into options to contest this problem for their clients.
Enforcing the new rule is another big problem, according to junior Alex Clark.
“It is disheartening to think that even if a new standard is implemented, it won’t be followed and people will still be suffering because it’s hard to force corporations to follow the rules,” Clark said.