Trump administration delays enforcement of stricter ozone pollution standard

“An asthma attack cannot be delayed a year,” Sierra Club responds.

Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both of which can come from power plants — interact with sunlight. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Ozone is the main ingredient in smog and is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both of which can come from power plants — interact with sunlight. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alerted the nation’s governors on Tuesday that it is giving states an additional year to develop air quality plans that will comply with agency’s 2015 ground-level ozone standard. The one-year extension also will provide the EPA an opportunity to look at ways to make it easier for states to meet the ozone standards, the agency said.

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.

“States have made tremendous progress and significant investment cleaning up the air,” Pruitt said in a statement announcing the one-year delay. “We will continue to work with states to ensure they are on a path to compliance.”

Areas designated as not meeting a 70 parts per billion National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone, which was set in 2015, face consequences that include “increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses,” the EPA said Tuesday.

The EPA is required to review the NAAQS ozone standards every five years and revise them if necessary to protect public health. States are subsequently required to develop plans to achieve and maintain compliance with the revised standards.

The 2015 revision lowered both the primary and secondary ozone air quality standards from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The revised standards were challenged by industry and certain states, which argued the standards should not have been lowered. Environmental groups, on the other hand, argued the EPA should have lowered the standards further to 65 or 60 parts per billion.

CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

The Sierra Club objected to the EPA’s one-year delay, warning it will have “real-world consequences” for Americans’ health. “Pruitt’s decision shows he would rather listen to a coal executive about what is safe for our families to breathe as opposed to doctors and medical professional,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement. “An asthma attack cannot be delayed a year and neither can a trip to the emergency room.”

Hundreds of medical scientists, doctors, and policy experts have weighed in on the need to strengthen clean air protections against smog pollution, according to Hitt. “Today’s action proves once again that while this administration claims to care about clean air and water, nothing could be further from the truth. We will fight this egregious breach of the Clean Air Act and the right of every American to breathe clean air,” she said Tuesday.

Based on fiscal-year 2017 funding, Pruitt said he will establish an Ozone Cooperative Compliance Task Force that will try to find ways for states to comply with the ozone standard with less hardship. “The agency is taking time to better understand some lingering, complicated issues so that air attainment decisions can be based on the latest and greatest information,” the EPA said.

In response to the one-year delay, John Walke, clean air director and a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, asserted that every state already has sufficient information that allows them to inform the EPA which areas do not meet the agency’s stricter smog standard.

In 2009, the EPA began reviewing the NAAQS, finding that ozone was strongly linked to serious health effects, asthma attacks and other respiratory complications. Based on that research, the agency issued the revised NAAQS for ozone.

Numerous parties, including states and industry, challenged the 2015 standard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Industry officials claimed the rule was too stringent and costly.

In April, the D.C. Circuit granted a petition by Pruitt’s EPA to indefinitely delay oral arguments in the ozone NAAQS litigation. The agency told the court it intended to review the rule. Under the court ruling, the EPA must file status reports on its review of the NAAQS rule at 90-day intervals.

Industry law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP explained in a report released earlier this year that environmental groups will have “tools at their disposal” to prevent any proposed weakening of the standard.

“Such tools include the ability to challenge EPA regulations they believe are not sufficiently protective of the environment or that weaken existing regulations and the ability to challenge the failure of EPA to issue regulations that such groups believe are required by environmental laws,” the law firm said.