Air Quality Standards:

EPA's Standard Setting Process Should Be More Timely and Better Planned

RCED-87-23: Published: Dec 3, 1986. Publicly Released: Jan 16, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reported on: (1) the current status and cost of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to review and update its national air quality standards; and (2) EPA plans for addressing additional research needs.

GAO found that EPA: (1) had not met its congressional mandate for reviewing and updating its national air quality standards by 1980; (2) reviewed and updated only one of the standards by the end of 1980; (3) did not complete reviews for two other standards until 4 years after the 1980 deadline; and (4) expects to complete its review of the remaining three pollutant standards in 1989. GAO also found that factors contributing to EPA delays include: (1) the length of time it takes to perform internal and external reviews; (2) EPA managers waiting for the re-examination of existing science or publication of new studies; and (3) turnover of top EPA administrators. EPA believes it can overcome these obstacles by developing milestones to review and update standards. GAO noted that EPA: (1) was aware that questions existed about the scientific information supporting each of the six air pollutant standards; (2) has not systematically identified and matched those questions with planned and ongoing research projects for each pollutant; (3) has not kept records on the actual cost of reviewing and updating the national air quality standards; and (4) estimates that it has spent about $348 million on the standards since fiscal year 1978.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA disagreed that it is not complying with the 5-year screening schedule, and intends to seek possible relief from or solutions to this requirement when the Clean Air Act is reauthorized.

    Recommendation: In order to meet the timetable Congress established, the Administrator, EPA, should adhere to the milestones in the EPA 5-year schedule for reviewing and updating the standards. To meet the milestones, the Administrator will need to limit technical analyses and reviews in the standard-setting process to those provided for in the EPA 5-year planning schedule. EPA should do additional analyses and reviews during the next 5-year review cycle.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The EPA Office of Air and Radiation and the Office of Research and Development have initiated procedures for identifying and controlling contractor and in-house personnel costs associated with reviewing and updating National Amient Air Quality Standards.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should implement procedures to record costs to review and update each air quality standard.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has established work groups to prepare research planning documents for all the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQ) and, according to the Chief, Ambient Standards Branch of EPA, research plans have been prepared fully documenting NAAQ research needs.

    Recommendation: To assist EPA managers in setting national air quality standards, the Administrator, EPA, should implement a formal process for identifying and documenting research questions and matching these questions with planned and ongoing research for each of the six pollutants. Specifically, formal research plans should be prepared highlighting questions about health effects for each pollutant and the extent to which planned and ongoing research will address them. The identification of research questions should be done by those EPA officials most knowledgeable of the science supporting each standard and should be done after identification and assessment of available scientific evidence is documented in the criteria documents and staff papers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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