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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources

09/30/1997
          Oral Testimony Carol M. Browner, Administrator
               U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
                            before the
                  U.S. House of Representatives
                      Committee on Resources
                        September 30, 1997


     Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to join Secretary Babbitt and Secretary Glickman in this discussion on wildland fire management.

     Let me say right at the outset that EPA recognizes the importance of fire as a natural part of the forest and grassland ecosystems.  Fires release important nutrients into the soil.  They reduce undergrowth and debris on the forest floor, thereby enabling trees and grasses to be more healthy.

     We know that fires -- and particularly planned, prescribed, managed fires -- have been and will continue to be an integral part of keeping forests and grasslands healthy.  And they help prevent the larger, unplanned, catastrophic wildfires that can pose a serious threat to public safety.

     The primary reason I am here today, Mr. Chairman, is to assure the committee that EPA's newly updated air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter will not -- let me repeat -- will not hinder the government's ability to implement a sound fire management program.

     They will not cause prescribed fires to be banned or reduced.

     And they are fully consistent with measures already under way that are designed to minimize any impact these fires might have on air quality and public health.

     To be sure, Mr. Chairman, protecting public health is what these standards are all about.

     They represent the most significant step we've taken in a generation to protect the American people -- and especially our children -- from the health hazards of air pollution.  Together, they will protect 125 million Americans, including 35 million children, from the adverse health effects of breathing polluted air.

     They will prevent approximately 15,000 premature deaths, about 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma and nearly a million cases of significantly decreased lung function in children.

     Clearly, the best available science shows that the previous standards were not adequately protecting Americans from the hazards of breathing polluted air.  Revising these standards will bring enormous health benefits to the nation.

     Now, it is true, Mr. Chairman, that prescribed fires on public lands cause smoke containing particulates that, above certain levels, pose a threat to human health.  And it appears that some people have taken this to mean that complying with the more protective air quality standards will require the reduction -- or even outright prohibition -- of managed fires on public
lands.  Hence, they have come up with a rather tantalizing argument, which is:  "EPA air quality standards are bad for forests."

     But it really doesn't work that way.  The argument is a red herring.

     First of all, our mission, under the Clean Air Act, is to protect public health.  In some areas of the country, catastrophic wildfires pose a huge threat to public safety.  We would never allow our air standards to inhibit sound forest management practices designed to reduce the danger of these wildfires to humans and to property.

     But, that consideration aside, even if we looked only at the impact of fires on air quality, it would still be tremendously counterproductive for EPA to impede prescribed burning.  To do so would merely increase the risk of unplanned, catastrophic wildfires, which cause extended periods of intense smoke and make the air much dirtier than prescribed fires do.

     Prescribed fires can be managed in order to minimize the smoke and particulates that adversely affect public health.  Burning can be scheduled during favorable wind and weather conditions.  The amount of debris, or "fuel," on the forest floor can be reduced prior to the burn.  And managed fires can be limited in frequency and duration, in order to avoid an adverse impact in a specific geographic area.

     These are among the steps normally taken by the Interior and Agriculture departments to carry out their policy that all managed fires on wildlands will incorporate public health and environmental considerations, including air quality.

     EPA participated in the development of that policy.  In addition, many planned fire activities are already subject to state regulations.

     And, as part of our common sense implementation strategy for the new air standards, we are continuing to work with the other federal agencies -- and the states -- to ensure that these necessary, prescribed fires have the least possible adverse impact on air quality.


     Let me sum it up this way.  Updated air quality standards are necessary to protect public health.  Prescribed fires are necessary to protect federal wildlands and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

     We are accomplishing both objectives, Mr. Chairman.  And, working closely with the other two departments represented here today -- as well as with land managers and air quality officials from the states -- I am confident that we will continue to be successful.

     Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.