EPA Under Biden Cracks Down on Cross-State Pollution

The rule finalized Monday will reduce toxic emissions by 17,000 tons, but environmental groups say it doesn’t go far enough.

WASHINGTON (CN) — When pollution from one state travels across a border, it causes a Clean Air Act violation in another state. But a new day dawned brighter in Washington on Tuesday under the Biden administration, which singled out 12 mostly red states whose emissions were primed to make excessive smog in neighboring states.

The move comes three years after the D.C. Circuit struck down guidelines it found were too lax on emissions blowing downwind from one state to another.

“The old rule didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” said Kathleen Riley, an attorney for EarthJustice.

Beginning this summer, operators in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia must ramp up their use of existing pollution-control equipment or install new equipment. 

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk in Dallas, Texas, noted that the competing interests at play require government’s involvement.

“There has to be federal oversight so Texas doesn’t cause problems in other states,” Schermbeck said. “No one state can take care of their pollution problems.”

As laid out in a fact sheet, the changes could reduce emissions by 17,000 tons in 2021, improving air quality for millions of Americans and creating significant public health benefits. The decrease in pollution is expected to prevent about 290,000 asthma events, 560 hospital and emergency room visits, 110,000 days of missed work and school, and up to 230 premature deaths in 2025. 

Sierra Club noted in a 2019 lawsuit that the action on the 12 states was severely overdue under the Trump administration. After the challengers prevailed at the D.C. Circuit, however, EarthJustice and other environmental groups had to bring another lawsuit to force compliance.

While that suit was underway in Washington, a group of states brought their own lawsuit in New York, leading a federal judge to impose a March 15 deadline on the EPA’s rulemaking.

Late on Monday, the EPA barely met that deadline. 

The finalization of the rule is among the first actions by new EPA head Michael Regan, who is slated to help the Biden administration crack down on polluters and push the nation toward clean energy. 

“The action we are taking today will not only help states meet their clean air obligations, but, more importantly, deliver cleaner, healthier air to millions of Americans starting this summer,” Regan said in a statement.

Energy and manufacturing companies believe the rule is excessive and costly, as they are already required to regulate emissions.

“These facilities already control emissions as required by existing federal and state law, and thus have already made substantial emissions reductions under Clean Air Act regulations,” the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute, Portland Cement Association, American Chemistry Council and United States Chamber of Commerce said in a joint statement regarding the rule.

The companies say they will incur significant costs under the changes. 

For environmental groups, however, the rule doesn’t go far enough and still too slow. The changes made Monday are an attempt to meet 2008 ozone standards, but environmental groups are now focused on the more stringent 2015 ozone standards. 

“We’re starting the clock for EPA to act under the more protective 2015 standards,” said Riley at Earthjustice.

EarthJustice and Downwinders at Risk are part of a coalition of public health, environmental justice and conservation groups that notified EPA on Friday of their intent to sue the agency to meet the 2015 standards. 

“We’ve been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act ever since it was passed [in 1980],” said Schermbeck, with the Downwinders group. “The problem solvers — decision makers — have kicked the can down the road for a long time.” 

Schermbeck says that he’s hopeful that the Biden administration will prioritize the fight against pollution with environmental justice in mind — a focus that the last administration did not share. Just a couple of weeks ago, Downwinders at Risk had its first ever call with the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA.

Because Biden has committed to environmental justice, Riley said she expects to see the administration make progress on pollution.

“This is an environmental justice issue, and it disproportionately harms certain communities,” Riley said. “Communities are expecting more going forward as this administration promised environmental justice.”

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