A View From the Cheap Seats

November 19, 2008

An Open Letter to Michael Hawthorne


By Rich Trzupek

Dear Mr. Hawthorne;

As a scientist who has worked in the environmental industry for over twenty five years, I read with great interest your November 14 story “US Undercuts Clean Air Rule”. Since my expertise involves the Clean Air Act and clean air rules, this headline came as quite a shock. Had I missed something? My clients (that would be the “dirty rotten polluters” to you) ought to know.

Not being a professional journalist, such as yourself, I can only assume that there are certain editorial standards that would apply to a story like this, even at a paper that used to be the Chicago Tribune. Among those standards – again, I’m making a leap of faith here, not having a journalism degree and all – I would presume there is an obligation to present all of the relevant facts in context such that the reader is given a fair picture of the issues involved.

In your story you note, almost in passing, that the lead air quality standard was reduced recently and that levels of airborne lead has dropped by over 97 per cent since the inception of the Clean Air Act. Good for you. These are facts. Perhaps, even relevant facts.

However, you then tie compliance with the new standard to the airborne monitoring network (and congratulations on learning about the monitoring network, by the by, a bit of knowledge that seemed to have eluded you when you targeted A. Finkl for a hit piece a few weeks ago), and – gosh darn it – you seem to tell the average, unsophisticated reader that industry is getting a break by not having to put in as many of these monitor-thingys as they should. The only logical conclusion is that the Bush administration – I’m sorry, the EVIL Bush administration – is once again willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent babes for the sake of corporate greed.

This is not merely my interpretation of your story. Several readers of the former Chicago Tribune reached the same conclusion, and some even wrote me, referencing your article as proof of how the usurper in the White House is rewarding his industry buddies at the expense of public health and welfare.

But let’s be clear Mr. Hawthorne: the monitoring network is a publicly-funded instrument. Ever monitor is purchased, maintained and operated using taxpayer dollars. In Illinois, those tax dollars are drawn from the Illinois EPA budget, which the Governor, whom you quote “as concerned and disappointed” regarding this issue, has raided to the point that the Illinois EPA barely has the cash to pay for pencils anymore. It might be relevant to point out that if Rockin’ Rod is so concerned about lead monitors, all he has to do to solve the “problem” is to stop robbing the agency that is responsible for buying them.

But I digress. The question posed is: how many more lead monitors should taxpayers fund? The answer, at least according to your story, is simply: “a lot more”. The clear implication is that if the answer is merely “more”, and not “a lot more”, people are going to die.

Not being a professionally-trained journalist like yourself, but rather a simple scientist, I am often frustrated by these sorts of subjective judgments, blanket accusations and unsupported statements that seem to pop up in the media so often. I need data, and though the ex Chicago Tribune has been redesigned to appeal to a substantially lower IQ level, I harbor the hope that the Trib still may have readers who might make an attempt to understand the relevant numbers as well.

In this case, what was the basis for requiring monitors in areas near emissions sources that emit 1 ton per year of lead, rather than one-half ton per year of lead? You suggest that this decision was based solely on White House intervention.

Really? Is that the way the way rulemakings work? Or might this be, oh I don’t know, a complete distortion of a long, public and scientifically-based process?

In order to answer that question, truthfully, accurately and in context, a professional journalist like yourself might be interested in examining the entire rulemaking record. Happily, such records are maintained in what we in the business call “a docket”. For your edification, dockets may be found here: http://www.regulations.gov/search/index.jsp. (If the Tribune can no longer afford internet service, your local library should be able to let you on to the web for free).

The lead rulemaking docket contains over 6,000 documents, comments and e-mails dating back from 2006 through November 12 of this year, when the rule was adopted. That’s a lot of documents, and I don’t imagine that even a professional journalist would have the time to go through them all, but a brief examination of the docket might convince some reasonable people that the process is a bit more open, public and scientifically based than what your story has implied.

In lieu of reviewing over 6,000 documents, comments and e-mails, you might have considered reading a summary of EPA’s logic, which is contained in the preamble to the actual rule. Since this document is only 100 pages, and is pretty well indexed, one would hope you would have been able to fit a review of it into your busy schedule of reading Sierra Club press releases.

In this document, we find that EPA did have a plausible reason to set the federal source-specific requirement to install neighborhood ambient air monitors at 1 ton per year. This threshold corresponds to the emission rate that would result in ambient air concentrations that are less than 50 per cent (that’s half, by the by) of the new lead ambient air standard. Agencies are also required to install monitors in the event that they find a source emitting less than a ton per year of lead that would meet this 50 per cent threshold. Of course, those benchmarks are based on, you know, scientific data, which obviously does not make for nearly as compelling reading as tales of political intrigue.

The docket also reveals that the people who protested the most about the new monitoring requirements were not from industry, but from the state agencies that would have to fund the new programs. Sources of lead emissions, meanwhile, will continue to be subject to permit limitations, recordkeeping, reporting and on-site process and pollution control device monitoring requirements, just as they always have been. With the new ambient air standard, these rules will become more stringent as well.

In other words, my dear Mr. Hawthorne, in these tough economic times, the EPA made a reasonable decision to force states to install more lead monitors where they are actually needed, based on a little thing we call science. You may believe that we need lead monitors at every corner. That is your right. But, unless and until you take the time to understand the issues you purport to be an expert on, your stories will continue to be treated with contempt by those of us who know better.


Rich Trzupek



  1. What’s surprising is not that this clown once again donned his kneepads to do the bidding of the Sierra Club, but that the Trib found someplace to put the “story” in between all the Obama worship.

    Comment by David Johansen — November 19, 2008 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  2. […] Especially this one. When I don my tights and cape (sorry about the visual) to sit down at my keyboard and battle the enviro-whacks, Hawthorne is my arch enemy. […]

    Pingback by threedonia.com » Blog Archive » Enviro-Math: 17 - 1 = 0 — December 1, 2008 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  3. Wow Richie, you sound more like a condescending lobbyist than a scientist. Facts being as they exist in your world of course, as I am not really a scientist like yourself and don’t rely on all of the facts as a person of science does, much like yourself. Just admit your biases and stop playing masterbatory games for your friends. when you finish high five-ing your pals take some time to look beyond the way laws are made and see some truth in what industry can do to create a better world for your asthmatic grandchildren.

    Comment by bobby — December 5, 2008 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  4. […] Most of the time, I have no connection to the businesses that he and they attack, as demonstrated here and here. Neither I, nor the company that I work for in the day job — Mostardi Platt […]

    Pingback by » Environmental Injustice: Attacking Industry In A Poor Community - Big Journalism — April 2, 2010 @ 9:50 am | Reply

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