(CN) – The time for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to begin regulating downwind pollution drifting into Maryland from over 30 electric plants in the surrounding region has come, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
In a 15-page opinion, U.S. District Judge James Bredar ended a long contention between the state of Maryland and Pruitt.
The state, joined by several environmental groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and others, filed a petition in November 2016 requesting the EPA find 36 neighboring electric plants spanning five states in violation of “good neighbor” air pollution rules.
At first, Maryland and their fellow petitioners only wanted a public hearing to discuss the dangerous levels of nitrogen oxides the plants were emitting.
But the agency didn’t respond to their request.
After months of waiting with no answer, the state sued last July.
They argued Pruitt ignored his role as administrator, which includes enforcing the Clean Air Act. The legislation contains the “good neighbor” rules they asked Pruitt to enforce.
By terms of the Clean Air Act, the EPA had 60 days to respond to their request.
The weeks came and went again and the EPA didn’t meet the deadline but instead requested more time, suggesting the agency could begin considering the petition by December 2018.
This, according to Bredar’s ruling, was unacceptable.
Peter Tsirigotis, the EPA’s director of the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standard, told Maryland there were complex issues driving the delays, including difficulty around assessing emission origins. That, plus the agency’s busy schedule, would not allow for an earlier response, Tsirigotis said.
But the “deadline set by the Clean Air Act has long since passed,” Bredar wrote Wednesday.
While the judger conceded that a 60-day timeline for a response by EPA may be “too short to afford any reasonable possibility of compliance,” the solution lies somewhere in the middle, he said.
More specifically September 2018.
“[The EPA provides] a blueprint for how they would like to address Maryland’s petition seemingly with little regard for how they must address that petition,” Bredar wrote. [Emphasis original]
But some all too “common themes” emerged from what amounted to excuses by the agency, he said.
“EPA is busy. EPA has limited resources. And EPA has too many competing demands on its limited resources… The court understands all of these concerns and were EPA granted unlimited discretion to prioritize its responsibilities, the court would normally be loathe to presume to tell an agency such as EPA how to perform its regulatory duties,” Bredar wrote.
“But that is not the situation the court finds itself,” he added.
Ordering a public hearing for July 2, followed by a 45-day public comment period, and action by the agency ordered no later than September 15, the state’s request should be doable, the judge said.
The agency “should have already developed a proposed action on Maryland’s petition,” anyway, he wrote and if Pruitt protests to the deadlines ordered, there is one other solution.
“If EPA and the administrator believe the timelines set by the Clean Air Act are unreasonable, they should seek an extension from Congress – in the form of an amendment,” Bredar wrote. “Not through the courts.”
The EPA did not immediately respond to request for comment.