Washington Sketch: Summer Vacation or an EPA Hearing — You Decide

Political commentary from two of the biggest maws in Washington.
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's August in the capital, which means that pretty much everybody who lives or works here has fled the place. Members of the House have returned to their districts, senators will soon follow, and the president will be off to Martha's Vineyard.

But the bureaucrats of the Environmental Protection Agency, God bless 'em, continue to do the people's business. On Monday, they held a public hearing on an EPA proposal to improve air-quality standards; it was the federal government's equivalent of a tree falling in the woods.

In a conference room in Arlington, four EPA officials agreed to sit and listen for nine hours, allotting five-minute speaking slots for as many as 108 citizens who wished to get something off their chests about nitrogen dioxide. But only 24 people signed up for their five minutes of fame.

"I'm really just a middle-aged, bicycle-riding accountant," testified one of them, Paul d'Eustachio from Takoma Park. "But I do possess a remarkably sensitive instrument for testing air quality, and that's my lungs." He gave a sample reading from this instrument: "I can't tell you how many parts per billion that I'm actually breathing, but my lungs will tell you that whatever it is, it's way, way, way, way, way too much."

The moderator asked her EPA colleagues: "Do you have any questions for Mr. D'Eustachio?" The three of them answered with a polite "no."

"I'm also a bicyclist," testified Kenton Pattie of Falls Church. "I've been racing for many, many years." Further, he said, "I swam this morning for an hour and a half right next to the Beltway, off of Braddock Road." Pattie presented some surprising evidence to the officials: "Studies that show the IQ score has gone down as a result of -- by four points for children who were exposed to nitrogen dioxide."

"Do you have a reference for that?" asked the moderator, Rosalina Rodriguez.

"I may have to look it up," Pattie answered.

"Was it specifically NO2 or was it all traffic pollution?" asked David Orlin, an EPA lawyer.

"I can't answer that, not for sure," the witness replied. "I found this off the Internet."

The officials took notes.

Participation would have been even lighter if the American Lung Association hadn't chosen to flood the zone. Of the 24 speakers, 14 were chapter heads, volunteers, low-level staff members or top officials with the association -- and each delivered roughly the same talking points: that the EPA proposal is too lenient.

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