The EPA announced this week that it was reconsidering plans to beef up its airborne lead monitoring network in response to a petition from environmental and health groups.

In May 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened limits on airborne lead by a factor of 10 and announced an expansion of its shrinking surveillance network to cover 259 power plants, smelters and other facilities emitting half a ton of lead per year.  Such a monitoring program was deemed necessary to ensure that all communities meet the EPA’s stricter standards.

But less than two days before the final rule was to be announced on October 17, the White House Office of Management and Budget pressured EPA to reduce its plans to include only facilities that emitting a ton or more of lead per year.

In January, the National Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups petitioned the EPA to reconsider that decision.  In their petition, they wrote, “The decision on the source-oriented monitoring threshold represents a triumph of politics over science—at the expense of public health—and should be reconsidered.”

Lead can cause kidney, heart and even brain damage, particularly in young children.  Removing lead from gasoline in 1980 reduced lead emissions by 87 percent, but thousands of facilities still spew the metal into the air and water.

“Good news today from the EPA!” Avi Kar, staff attorney for the NRDC in San Francisco wrote on his blog on Wednesday, “As environmental lawyers, we haven’t had much opportunity to say that in the last eight years. . . . It’s encouraging to see a new era take root at the EPA.”

Image of ASARCO smelter tower courtesy wablair via Flickr