EPA Weakens Clean Air Protection for Millions of Americans

Agency denies petition to review anti-smog rules


David Baron/Jared Saylor, Earthjustice 202-667-4500

Just as the nation enters the hottest, smoggiest days of summer, the Environmental Protection Agency has reaffirmed a decision to dramatically weaken air pollution rules for many U.S. communities. The decision rejects a petition filed by public health and conservation groups urging the agency to restore stronger anti-smog limits in some of the nation’s most polluted cities.

The groups filed the petition in response to an EPA rule adopted last year to implement the new “8-hour” standard for ozone-smog. Although the new standard is supposed to be stronger than the prior standard, EPA’s rule actually lets states relax important pollution limits that applied under the old standard. In some cities, the rule could allow pollution increases of hundreds or even thousands of tons over levels previously permitted. Earthjustice petitioned EPA to reverse this weakening provision on behalf of American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Sierra Club, Clean Air Task Force, Conservation Law Foundation, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Last Friday EPA rejected that petition.

“This EPA action is a field day for new polluters,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “They’re allowing more pollution in cities where the air is already unhealthy to breathe. That’s grossly irresponsible, and in our view illegal.”

Under the Clean Air Act, large factories that plan to locate or increase their emissions in cities violating clean air standards must meet protective “New Source Review” (NSR) requirements. Among other things, a factory subject to NSR must ensure that its pollution increases will be more than offset by pollution reductions from other sources in the area. To meet the offset requirement, a factory might need to pay for additional pollution controls at other sources. The rule just reaffirmed by EPA allows many new factories to escape these requirements under the new standard.

Cities facing the potential for increased pollution under EPA’s action include Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Washington (DC), Beaumont-Port Arthur, Boston, Dallas, Providence, and San Joaquin Valley, CA.

Smog is often associated with asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory illness. Higher smog levels in a region are frequently accompanied by increased hospitalization and emergency room visits for respiratory disorders. Hundreds of counties across the country currently have unhealthful levels of smog, which limits outdoor activities, increases hospitalizations, and puts millions of Americans at risk for respiratory problems.

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