By Michael Hawthorne
The Trump administration on Tuesday exempted most of southeast Wisconsin from the latest federal limits on lung-damaging smog pollution, delivering a political victory to Gov. Scott Walker as he makes a new Foxconn Technology Group factory the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
By dramatically reducing the size of the areas required to crack down on smog, Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt overruled the agency's career staff, a move that will save Foxconn from having to make expensive improvements as it builds a sprawling new electronics plant in Racine County, just north of the Illinois border in an area with some of the state's dirtiest air.
Pruitt also pared back the list of counties with dirty air in Illinois and Indiana, a decision that could add to Chicago's chronic problems with pollution linked to asthma attacks, heart disease and early deaths.
Tweaking the list of counties in violation of federal smog standards is the latest attempt by Pruitt to roll back or delay environmental regulations enacted during the Obama administration. It comes as a new peer-reviewed study found that improvements in air quality across the U.S. have slowed significantly in recent years.
The EPA did not address the last-minute changes in a news release that quoted Pruitt as saying he was "following the data and the law." But the areas removed from the list were suggested by Republican elected officials who have sought to curb the EPA's authority to force industries to clean up the air.
"We are working with the EPA to implement a plan that continues to look out for the best interest of Wisconsin," Walker, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, said Tuesday in a Twitter post. "We continue to search for ways to balance between environmental stewardship and a positive, pro-jobs business environment."
Walker blames Chicago for making the air unhealthy to breathe in parts of Wisconsin. However, an EPA staff analysis of industrial pollution, traffic patterns and weather patterns concluded Wisconsin is at least partially responsible for its own smog problems, and documents filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources show Foxconn would be a major new source of smog-forming pollution.
Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, is formed by a reaction between sunlight and pollution from car tailpipes, power plants and factories, fumes from volatile solvents and gasoline vapors. After a scientific review required every five years by the federal Clean Air Act, the Obama EPA tightened the national smog standard in 2015 to 70 parts per billion, down from the 75 ppb limit set during the Bush administration.
Average smog concentrations in all of the Wisconsin areas initially targeted by the EPA exceeded the new federal limit during the past three years, according to state monitoring data. Smog levels peaked at 83 ppb last year in Racine County and averaged 75 ppb between 2015 and 2017.
If Pruitt had followed the EPA staff report, Foxconn and other industrial sources of smog-forming pollution in Racine County would have been required to install more effective pollution-control equipment, scale back production or broker costly emissions-trading agreements with cleaner facilities.
Environmental groups and a union representing EPA employees predicted Pruitt's action won't survive a court challenge. The smog standards likely will remain in legal limbo past the November elections.
"This is another ridiculous attempt by Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration to violate the law," said John Walke, a former EPA attorney who leads the clean air program at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "We are looking forward to seeing them in court again."
"Unfortunately, the people living around Foxconn in Racine and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin are the big losers," said Michael Mikulka, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704. "They will have to breathe in more air pollution every day because of Pruitt's gift to the governor."
Soon after he joined the Trump administration, Pruitt moved to delay the smog standards from taking effect for at least a year, then backtracked under legal pressure from Illinois and 15 other states with Democratic attorneys general. He sued to block the smog standards during his previous job as Oklahoma attorney general, enlisting Walker and other Republican governors to join a lawsuit drafted with substantial input from fossil fuel interests.
In addition to completely exempting Racine County from the smog standards, Pruitt scaled back the EPA staff recommendations for other parts of Wisconsin, leaving only strips of land along Lake Michigan in Door, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties on the list of areas that need to take more aggressive steps to improve air quality.
At the urging of two other Republican governors, Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Pruitt also removed all of McHenry County, Ill., and Porter County, Ind., and part of Lake County, Ind., from the list of areas that contribute to chronic smog problems in the Chicago area. The EPA gave little explanation for the changes, and state officials in Illinois and Indiana did not return messages seeking comment.
Pruitt has said one of his top priorities is delegating more authority to states to enforce environmental laws, though one of the reasons the EPA was created in 1970 was states either were unwilling or unable to hold polluters accountable.
Health groups note that most of the country met earlier smog standards far more quickly and at significantly lower costs than expected.
The Obama EPA estimated that most of the nation would meet the new smog standard by 2025, with the biggest improvements in air quality coming from cleaner cars, trucks and power plants required by other federal regulations the Trump administration is attempting to unravel.
(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune