Lobbyists for industrial battery recyclers charged over to the White House recently to crank up arguments against possible tough new regulations of lead, a key ingredient of automobile and other heavyweight batteries. The closed-door meetings were prompted by a court order requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act by Wednesday to update its 30-year-old regulation of the dangerous pollutant.

EPA staff and an independent science advisory panel both concluded earlier this year that even though lead emissions have been slashed by 98 percent since it was removed from gasoline, remaining amounts should be sharply reduced to better protect public health. EPA’s lead regulations have not been updated since 1978, and more than 6,000 studies have shown that exposure to even tiny amounts can cause childhood retardation, nerve damage, heart attacks and other serious problems.

“We found that despite the reduction in lead exposure, there is still considerable room for improvement, and that we should try to achieve levels even considerably lower than what children and the rest of us are exposed to today,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a veteran lead poisoning researcher who helped craft the science panel’s recommendations.

But on Oct. 2, battery industry consultants met with White House economic and environmental officials to counter some of those arguments. They said data used by EPA to propose lower legal limits was questionable, particularly Lanphear’s, 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 representing the Association of Battery Recyclers, the group representing 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.”

EPA officials in May proposed reducing allowable airborne lead concentrations from 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter to between 0.10 micrograms and 0.30 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency also solicited comments on alternative levels of up to 0.50 micrograms and less than 0.10 micrograms per cubic meter. The science panel and agency staff both concluded the levels should be dropped to the lowest end of the range — 0.10 micrograms.

Agency officials are being coy about when a final decision will be signed and announced, but say they will meet the court-ordered deadline.

“We have until a minute before midnight Wednesday,” said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn, meaning an announcement could come tomorrow or Thursday. “We don’t have a set time right now. The only thing we can say at this point is the final rule is on schedule, and we expect to announce it this week.”

EPA is supposed to review the nation’s most serious air pollutants every five years under the Clean Air Act, but often fails to meet the deadline, instead acting after being sued. In the case of lead, a Missouri environmental group concerned about smelter emissions won a court order requiring the agency to act.

But Steinwurtzel said there was no technology available that would enable U.S. recyclers to reach the lowest levels proposed by the EPA panel. He said tightening legal emissions too much could “threaten the viability of the industry,” and drive the business overseas, where regulations are often far more lax, with dire health consequences.

He added that the EPA scientists wrongly relied on a lead study conducted by Lanphear, one of the panel’s own members. He said Lanphear also refused to release the underlying data used to make his conclusions. Steinwurtzel said similar arguments were made by him and an industry-backed scientist in the White House meetings. Asked about the White House response, Steinwurtzel said “they were very polite, but nothing substantive. … There was no indication that our concerns would be persuasive.”

Lanphear denied the industry criticism, and said he was confident that the industry could come up with new technology to meet more health protective standards.

“They are certainly not wearing green hats,” said Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. “This is always the initial response of industry, whether it’s the drug industry, the battery industry or the biomedical industry. They always say they’re going to go out of business, and they don’t. … I have tremendous respect for the ability of industry to innovate and come up with new solutions.”

Environmentalists in turn blasted industry consultants for once again lobbying White House officials.

“As so often happens when an issue like this comes down to the wire, the special interests are heading to the White House,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “The agency, of course, is supposed to set standards at a level sufficient to protect people’s health – not to consider costs and benefits.”

Lead emissions in the U.S. have plunged in the last 30 years from an estimated 78,000 tons per year to about 1,700 tons per year, according to government statistics. But airplanes, industrial battery manufacturers and smelters still emit lead, and local regulators and health advocates say there are still problems.

In June, southern California regulators concluded Exide, the largest lead battery recycler in the West, had been emitting lead at levels nearly twice the current allowable federal limits from its aging smokestacks or other parts of the plant for four straight months. Exide officials said at the time that they believed the monitoring was faulty, and the emissions were coming from elsewhere. Company officials continue to fight the findings, a South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman said Friday, but levels in the air outside the plant have dropped significantly since required clean-up was done at the plant.

David Weinberg, counsel for the Battery Council International, whose 260 members manufacture industrial batteries, said the problem with monitoring for lead in many urban areas is that while there are monitors placed right on the fence lines of battery recycling and manufacturing facilities in industrial areas, there is only one lead monitor required per million residents in a metropolitan area, far too few to determine where the lead is actually coming from. He said airplanes now emit far more lead than the battery industry, for instance. Nonetheless, he said, if EPA makes a decision “backed by rational analysis, we can live with it.”

Environmentalists fear any new lead regulation could follow a pattern of recent decisions by EPA administrator Stephen Johnson on ozone, particulate soot and greenhouse gases, in which he ignored the findings of his own staff or science advisers, and either declined to regulate or issued weaker regulations than scientists and medical experts had recommended. In each case, Johnson acted after industry groups met with White House officials, and sometimes echoed almost verbatim their recommendations. He and agency spokesmen have insisted he acted independently each time.

“This is a déjà vu situation, since it wasn’t that long ago that the White House intervened to force EPA to set a weak air quality standard for ozone smog,” said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council, in an Oct. 12 blog post. “Official public comment period closed months ago, so folks like us can’t be heard anymore. But those guys can still get in the door. …These battery guys are hoping they will get a break — they’ll save money by not having to buy pollution-control equipment, and the kids who live near their factories … well … let’s not think too much about them.”

Solomon wrote that she still hopes administrators would focus on “science and health” not “distractions like the whining in the battery industry.”

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