Six feet can seem like a mile, depending upon the circumstances. People can be standing side-by-side, engaged in conversation, yet the distance between their views and opinions can be as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge when it comes right down to it.
We witnessed this at the annual Washington Forum put on by the National Association For Surface Finishing this spring. Standing at the speakers’ podium and addressing several dozen of the top people in the plating industry was Janet McCabe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation.
McCabe was giving a briefing on the EPA’s chromium air rule updates that have caused a fire storm among NASF members of late, mainly because much of the data gathered by the EPA brain trust was shoddy and just plain wrong. Translation: this was a sheep who had wandered into the wolf’s den.
When McCabe finished up her 15-minute talk, NASF Executive Director Christian Richter led the often-contentious Q&A that followed.
They stood just about six feet apart from each other, but ideologically they were more like Obama and Romney.
In a way only a Washington veteran could do, Richter sliced and diced McCabe for a few minutes about her agency’s actions and methods, without really sounding like he was insulting his guest speaker. He did joke that she only agreed to come speak to the group after she had denied their request for an extension to further answer the EPA’s flawed report on chromium finishing operations in the U.S.
He drove home the point that the data the EPA was using was so wrong that 35 percent of the shops they had on their list weren’t even in business any longer. Furthermore, 38 percent were no longer processing chromium finishing.
McCabe held her ground, though, and said the EPA would consider the new information. But what was astonishing was that she hinted that the NASF data on those shops that were closed or no longer using chromium might be questionable.
“I know that there are questions about where some of the data came from,” she said. “Is there some type of support for the assertion that the facility is no longer there, or what its emissions are? The more support, the more persuasive the data is.”
The NASF data came from guys like John Lindstedt from Artistic Plating in Milwaukee and J. Kelly Mowry in Texas driving around to a lot of the shops on the list and finding abandoned buildings.
But according to McCabe, the onus is on the NASF to disprove the flawed data the EPA collected—let the truth be damned. This reminds us of a part McCabe played when she worked for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management a decade ago.
A newspaper there ran a series in 2004 called “Special Report: Neighborhood at Risk,” claiming large parts of the state had high cancer risks from pollution from local industry. The problem: the data was from 1996, and many of the companies tabbed as big polluters, such as Rolls-Royce and Reilly Industries, weren’t even doing the type of work they were accused of doing eight years earlier.
When McCabe, the IDEM's assistant commissioner for air quality at the time, was asked if the data was accurate, she said her department didn’t have the $70,000 to measure the levels. Reilly Industries offered to buy proper equipment for the state EPA so it could use new data.
So with the NASF’s Richter standing just a few feet away from the person who might be ready to drop the hammer—again—on the plating industry without the full scope of data, you could see the divide between what is good and bad about the EPA.
“I’m sure we’ll probably be sued over this,” McCabe told the group. “And sometimes we get sued by both sides, so that should tell you something.”
It tells us a lot, especially about fairness and justice, which are a little more than six feet apart at this stage of the game.