For Pruitt EPA, There Is No Bad News on Ozone Pollution

November 28, 2017

TipSheet: For Pruitt EPA, There Is No Bad News on Ozone Pollution

This special TipSheet is one in a series of reports from SEJournal TipSheet Editor Joseph A. Davis looking ahead to key issues in the coming year. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and for the full “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report in late January.

Is the smog in your area bad? If you live in Southern California, Houston, much of the East Coast or some other parts of the United States, you might have worries.

But how will you know?

You may not get much help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA currently is not disclosing which areas are in “nonattainment” for the latest, and strictest, standards for ozone (which is the worst component of smog).

Despite EPA’s hands-over-the-eyes approach, it’s not that much of a mystery. Ultimately, you may know when your eyes start to burn and your throat gets scratchy. But here are some clues to help environmental journalists in the meantime.

Backstory on ozone standards

The EPA tightened the ozone standards back in 2015, when former President Barack Obama was in the White House and Gina McCarthy was running the EPA.

The agency lowered the health-based standard from 75 parts per billion in ambient air down to 70 ppb. EPA was supposed to decide which counties were in attainment — and which were not — by October 1 of this year.

Denver skyline
View of Denver skyline. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

But that was hardly the end of the story. A collection of Republican state attorneys general (along with Murray Energy Company, the Trump-boosting coal company) sued EPA almost immediately after the standards were published back in 2015. Then-Oklahoma Attorney General and now-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was among them.

They claimed the standards were “destructive” and had been issued for the sole purpose of killing jobs.

Fast forward: Donald Trump is elected president and installs Pruitt to head EPA. In June of 2017, Pruitt announced that he would delay implementation of the ozone standards (that is, designation of nonattainment areas) for a year.

That, in turn, caused a phalanx of some 15 Democratic state attorneys general to sue the agency — opposing the delay. Two days after they filed suit, Pruitt announced that EPA was reversing course and would not delay implementation.

Not to be left out, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill (HR 806) on July 18, 2017, by a nearly party-line (229-199) vote, which mandated a delay in implementing the ozone standards for much more than a year. It has not yet gone anywhere in the Senate. Yet.

Good news, bad news in latest designations

Under the original game plan, EPA was supposed to announce nonattainment designations by Oct. 1, 2017. The agency missed the deadline and blue states sued again over that.

On Nov. 16, EPA made public its designations. That’s the good news. The bad news was that there wasn’t any bad news. EPA only published information about which areas were in attainment, and stayed silent on which areas were not in attainment.

Some viewed this as slow-walking to avoid the lawsuit.

Getting back to the good news: EPA’s Nov. 16 announcement said that 85 percent of U.S. counties were in attainment of the new, stricter ozone standard. That included 2,646 counties, some tribal areas and five territories. In a fact sheet, EPA said it was not naming the nonattainment areas, but would do so in the future.

This will not be the end of the story. There will be plenty more of it in 2018.

Why ozone attainment matters

The most important reason why ozone attainment matters is public health. Ozone/smog causes more than just burning eyes and scratchy throat. It can harm lung function and damage lung tissue, worsening bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

On a legal level, though, being designated a nonattainment area triggers a set of corrective (some say punitive) actions. Nonattainment areas have to come up with plans for coming into attainment. And if they don’t, EPA will impose a plan.

Another consequence of nonattainment is that certain permits for big air pollution sources can not be issued. That can slow economic development. This is where the “job-killer” label comes from.

To environmental reporters, however, EPA’s non-designation of nonattainment areas does not really matter. It need not keep you from writing the story. A number of local news outlets have already done it. Examples include this one from KDHE in Kansas. Or this one from the San Antonio Current.

Reporting the state of your local air

So here are some things that will help you figure out if your area has an ozone problem.

The list. You can look at EPA’s newly published list of attainment areas. If your county is not on it, you likely have a problem.

Previous nonattainment. The previous set of standards for ozone was set back in 2008. If your area had trouble meeting those standards, it’s likely at risk for not meeting the new standards. A map of the old nonattainment areas is here and a list of the areas (e.g., counties, metro areas or tribal areas) is here.

Last summer’s readings. EPA displays daily air quality readings on its AIRNow web page. This is a good thing to look at on bad days during the smog season. It combines the readings for ozone and particulates. One nifty thing about this site is that it has archives — so you can go back and look at how bad things were during, say, July of last year when the smog was bad. You can get another view of historical information in the county-by-county statistics in EPA’s annual Air Quality Trends.

Updates from state & local agencies. Every state has an air pollution control agency and you can often get information on where the problems are from them. A list is here. Very often a polluted metropolitan area cuts across jurisdictional boundaries, and many regional or metropolitan air pollution agencies have been formed. Find the one in your area and see what pollution information it offers. Most are on this EPA list.

One of the ironies of the situation is that EPA relies on recommendations by the states as to which areas should be designated for nonattainment. What has your state recommended?

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.



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