16 attorneys general sue Scott Pruitt for blocking implementation of EPA smog rule

“The science linking smog to adverse health impacts is clear and definitive.”

The House voted July 18, 2017, to pass a Republican-backed bill delaying implementation of Obama-era reductions in smog-causing air pollutants. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Virtanen
The House voted July 18, 2017, to pass a Republican-backed bill delaying implementation of Obama-era reductions in smog-causing air pollutants. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Virtanen

A coalition of 16 state attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday for delaying a rule intended to reduce emissions of smog-causing air pollutants.

The states contend that Administrator Scott Pruitt’s proposed one-year delay in compliance deadlines for the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards violate the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The Obama-era regulation lowered the allowable concentration of ozone to 70 parts per billion, from the previous 75.

“By illegally blocking these vital clean air protections, Administrator Pruitt is endangering the health and safety of millions — but attorneys general have made clear: we won’t hesitate to fight back to protect our residents and our states,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading the lawsuit, said in a statement.

Pruitt’s EPA counters that the one-year extension will provide the agency an opportunity to look at ways to make it easier for states to meet the ozone standards. States are required to come up with plans and deadlines to reduce ground-level ozone, or smog, in the designated areas.

Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both of which can come from car exhaust and power plants — interact with sunlight. Breathing in ozone can contribute to a range of health impacts, including a decrease in lung function and an increase in respiratory symptoms.

Several industry groups are opposed to the stricter smog rules, including the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They argue that the stricter rules put an undue economic burden on industry.

The American Lung Association, on the other hand, estimates that more than 115 million Americans breathe harmful levels of ozone, which often travels far distances from other states with less stringent clean air regulations.

“The science linking smog to adverse health impacts is clear and definitive. The EPA should be assessing the bottom line of their actions by their effectiveness in protecting the public, not the joy of corporate shareholders,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement.

Schneiderman was joined in filing the lawsuit by the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

In 2015, the Obama administration’s EPA strengthened the national air quality standards for smog. The Clean Air Act requires the agency, within two years after issuance of new or revised standards, to designate areas of the county that are in attainment or non-attainment with these public health and welfare standards.

Thus, the Trump EPA was required to issue attainment or non-attainment designations by October 1, 2017. In late June, Pruitt published a notice pushing the deadline to October 1, 2018.

For areas designated as in non-attainment for the standards, states must adopt implementation plans — a collection of actions a state will undertake to reduce pollution in order to ensure standards will be met in those areas. The deadlines for submitting implementation plans are directly linked to the date of EPA designations.

The EPA estimates that meeting the new smog standards will result in net annual public health benefits of up to $4.5 billion starting in 2025, not including California, while also preventing approximately 316 to 660 premature deaths, 230,000 asthma attacks in children, 630 asthma-related emergency room visits, and 340 cases of acute bronchitis in children.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed a bill last month designed to delay implementation of the Obama administration’s ground-level ozone rule. Environmental groups say the bill will weaken the Clean Air Act, including switching the EPA’s mandated review of ozone from every five years to every 10. The measure has not yet been brought to a vote in the Senate.

Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday ruled that state officials who had filed a “friend of the court” brief will be allowed to defend the 2015 ozone standard in lawsuits challenging the rule. Last month, the states asked to be upgraded to intervenors from friend-of-the-court status, which will allow the states to actively defend the rule and file appeals if the EPA does not, Politico reported.

California, New York, Vermont, Washington, Massachusetts, Delaware, and the District of Columbia had filed the brief supporting the rule.