Are we there yet?

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has decided she’ll take another look at monitoring of car battery recyclers, concrete kilns and power plants that spew dangerous lead emissions. She did not say she’d toughen up the monitoring, but clean air advocates are hopeful.

“It’s a step in the right direction for public health, and children’s health in particular,” said Avi Kar, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. His group and several others petitioned the agency in January to reconsider — and tighten — proposed monitoring requirements on lead emitting facilities. On Thursday, Jackson granted their petition, and said a new monitoring proposal would be ready later this summer.

“We do take it as a good sign that they’re willing to reconsider,” said Kar in an interview.

In an online blog post, he was more effusive.

“Good news today from the EPA! As environmental lawyers, we haven’t had much opportunity to say that in the last eight years. I like saying that. It’s encouraging to see a new era take root at EPA,” he wrote.

The granting of NRDC’s petition for reconsideration, as it’s known in bureaucratic parlance, is one step in a still lengthy process. There will be a proposal, public comment, and, finally, a possible amendment to a huge update of the entire lead regulation. This is the federal government, after all.

“This is just reconsideration, this is just a first step,” said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn. “NRDC and others asked us to reconsider it, and our answer is yes, we will reconsider it. … We can’t ‘just change the rule’ without going through notice-and-comment rulemaking. We can’t change any final rule without giving the public opportunity to comment on potential changes.”

Many in the environmental movement were astonished last fall when President Bush’s EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, took his own scientists’ advice over the complaints of industry, and lowered the legally allowable amounts of lead in the air by more than ten times. Lead battery smelters had charged over to the White House a few weeks earlier, as a court deadline neared to update the regulation. It was the first time lead limits had been touched since 1978.

The astonishment turned to familiar groans from environmentalists when it turned out White House budget officials had intervened at the eleventh hour to eliminate required monitoring for facilities emitting less than a ton of lead annually. Being exposed to the heavy metal in even small amounts can damage children’s brain development, heart and kidney functions, among other maladies. Johnson’s own staff had recommended that facilities spewing out half a ton be monitored in geographic areas where emissions exceed the new limits.

The night before Johnson’s announcement, a senior EPA staffer e-mailed a White House Office of Management and Budget staff person saying a technical, rather than a policy explanation, was needed for why there had been a last minute, sharp reduction in monitoring. That explanation was never received, and Johnson followed the White House recommendations in his announcement the next day.

EPA staff reiterated in a conversation this week that proper monitoring is a critical part of protecting public health.

Any proposal by Jackson and her staff will have to be vetted by the White House budget office again, said Milbourn in an e-mail.

“Yes, whatever we propose will have to go back to OMB,” she wrote.

A battery council representative did not return a call for comment Thursday. Industry representatives have argued in the past that they are among the world’s best recyclers, and that the new regulations could drive their business overseas to places with far more lax health and environmental regulations.