Federal regulators announced Thursday a sharp reduction in legal levels of lead emissions, rejecting pleas by industrial battery recyclers who told White House officials earlier this month that they could be put out of business by tough new limits.

“Our nation’s air is cleaner today than just a generation ago, and last night I built upon this progress by signing the strongest … air quality standards for lead in our nation’s history. These levels reduce allowable levels of lead exposure by ten times,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson. “When my children were young, EPA protected them by phasing out lead in … gasoline, and thanks to this standard EPA will protect my grandchildren from remaining sources of lead.”

The lead regulations had not been updated for 30 years. More than 6,000 studies since 1990 have shown that exposure to even tiny amounts can cause childhood retardation, nerve damage, heart disease, and other serious problems. EPA was under court order to act by midnight Wednesday after being sued by a Missouri environmental group.

There were some concessions to industry requests. Polluters will be allowed to average emissions over a three-month period, which critics say could allow regulators to ignore illegally high spikes of lead emissions. Industry representatives were studying the details of the new regulations and had no immediate comment.

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On Oct. 2, battery industry consultants met with White House economic and environmental officials to lobby for weaker limits. They said data used by EPA to propose lower legal limits was questionable, and that their industry is a recycling success story that could be put out of business by draconian new limits.

“We’re wearing the green hats here … we have the highest recycling compliance rate of any industry in the world,” said Robert Steinwurtzel, an attorney for the Association of Battery Recyclers, on Tuesday. The group represents a multimillion dollar industry that employs 15,000 workers to strip and melt down 115 million spent car batteries each year. “It’s just remarkable to me that the most successful recycling story in the history of this country is going to be threatened,” said Steinwurtzel.

In an e-mail, Steinwurzel called Thursday’s announcement “a surprise and a disappointment. We remain very concerned about the impacts to the viability of the industry and the resulting risks associated with the potential improper management of used lead-acid batteries.”

He said the decision could be challenged in court, but that it would take days just to digest the hefty documents associated with the new regulation “Obviously…there has been no decision whether to sue or not.”

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Johnson said Thursday he was aware of those concerns, but that under the Clean Air Act he was only allowed to consider what levels would protect public health, not costs or financial impacts.

Anticipating that reasoning, Steinwurtzel said Tuesday his group was not arguing on the basis of costs. He said if U.S. plants were forced to shut down, lead batteries could end up being processed illegally, or being shipped overseas to countries with far more lax pollution laws, creating dire health consequences.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, gave mixed grades to the new regulation, which will add more than 200 new monitoring sites, but exempt many smaller lead sources.

“The revised air pollution standard announced today is an important step toward protecting our families from toxic lead exposure, but I have concerns about the EPA’s monitoring plan and its failure to fully protect communities near dangerous sources,” said Boxer in a statement. “I will work to ensure that the standards as well as the monitoring program protect children from toxic lead pollution, since the science shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead.”

After Thursday’s announcement, some environmentalists noted that the new levels were still far higher than what was recommended by EPA’s own children’s health advisory panel.

“It’s clearly better than the current rules, there’s no doubt there,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “It’s also clearly weaker than the EPA’s children health advisers had recommended.”

The new regulation tightens the allowable lead level 10 times to 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air, falling at the lower end of a range of recommendations by EPA staff and its science advisory panel. The EPA Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee had recommended they be set almost ten times lower than that, to 0.02 micrograms. But one doctor on that panel expressed satisfaction.

“The details of the standard represent a reasonable compromise,” said Dr. John Balbus, Environmental Defense Fund‘s chief health scientist, and a panel member. “While EPA’s own analysis justifies an even lower lead standard, this 10-fold reduction will go a long way to protecting children most at risk from airborne lead.”

Balbus and others had criticized Johnson harshly in the past for not following scientific recommendations in new regulations of ozone and other pollutants. They had feared a repeat of that in the new lead regulation.

“It’s refreshing to see the agency follow the science and the advice of its experts in making this decision,” said Balbus.

Janet Wilson is a veteran journalist based in southern California, who reported on air quality and other environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at janetwilson66 AT gmail DOT com.

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