updated 3/14/2008 6:54:13 PM ET 2008-03-14T22:54:13

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency rejected suggestions on Friday that the White House forced him to weaken a key part of its new smog requirement after intervention by President Bush.

"I made the decision," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson declared, saying he wanted to "set the record straight" on the issue.

Documents and e-mails that EPA provided as part of the record on the smog regulation, issued on Wednesday, showed that Bush became personally involved in settling differences between the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget over a part of the smog rule.

The documents show a disagreement between EPA and the OMB, which reviews regulations, on the amount of protection from ozone, or smog, that should be afforded wildlife, farmlands, parks and open spaces.

EPA officials had wanted to make the so-called "public welfare" or "secondary" standard stronger than the human health standard, a position also taken by environmentalists and health experts. But the White House insisted on making both standards identical, according to the documents. The issue went to Bush, who sided with his budget office.

At the conclusion of a conference call with reporters Friday on a new EPA rule to curb pollution from ships and trains, Johnson said he wanted to "set the record straight" on the issue.

"Invoking of the executive order (from the White House) did not deal with the stringency" of the public welfare standard, only "the form" it was to take, said Johnson. "I made the decision on the stringency."

The EPA on Wednesday issued a rule that tightened the smog requirements for human health, reducing the allowable concentrations of ozone, or smog, in the air from 80 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion for air to be deemed healthy. The public welfare standard was set at about the same level, though calculated differently.

'Not a weakening,' White House says
The White House defended Bush's action.

"This is not a weakening of regs (regulations) or standards," White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Friday. "But it was an effort to make the standards consistent. There's no question we have an interest in how federal regs impact communities."

Fratto said the new standards are the "most stringent smog standards in history" and that communities will have a hard time meeting them. He described the area where Bush intervened as 'a technical matter' and said he acted on the advice of the Justice Department.

The White House's involvement was first reported by The Washington Post.

Susan Dudley, head of OMB's Information and Regulatory Affairs, alluded to Bush's involvement in a last-minute memo to EPA chief Johnson.

"The president has concluded that consistent with administration policy, added protection should be afford to public welfare by strengthening the secondary ozone standard and setting it to be identical to the new primary standard," she wrote. It should not be weaker or stronger than the human health standard, the OMB insisted.

Although the memo was dated Thursday, it was faxed to the EPA on Wednesday, hours before the agency announced the rule. Parts of the memo were included in the rule's preamble posted on the EPA Web site.

Activist: 'Unlawful act'
"Never before has a president personally intervened at the 11th hour, exercising political power at the expense of the law and science, to force EPA to accept weaker air quality standards than the agency chief's expert scientific judgment had led him to adopt," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference."

Dudley, in a March 6 memo, had questioned the EPA's justification for having a stronger smog requirement for public welfare than for human health.

The "public welfare" — or secondary — standard is fashioned in a way to protect against long-term harm to the environment. The limits on ozone under this standard are likely to have more impact on rural areas than urban centers.

Environmentalists and ecologists have argued that the standard should be more stringent than the human health ozone standard.

Last year the EPA staff and a scientific advisory panel on clean air concluded that protection of forests, agricultural lands and the ecosystem requires a "substantially different" ozone standard from the one for protecting human health.

In recent weeks the Agriculture Department has weighed in against making the public welfare ozone standard tougher. The department expressed concerns about the impact additional pollution controls might have on agriculture and development of biofuels, especially ethanol.

The department made its concerns known to OMB. EPA officials said the need was clear for a different standard for public welfare and that drifting ozone pollution has been found to cause "adverse effects" on agricultural crops, forests and vegetation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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