Energy & Environment

Latest EPA guidance weakens air protections in favor of industry, critics say

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday released its newest definition for ambient air in a move critics say will ease burdens on polluting industries.

On its surface, the guidance deals less directly with air quality than it does with fencing. Though seemingly unrelated, the Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to spaces where the public has been denied access, forcing polluting industries to surround their property with fencing.

The guidance posted Tuesday would allow industries to use other “non-physical barriers” to enclose those spaces, such as no trespassing signs or even patrol by drones, something air quality experts say exempts industries from installing pollution controls.

“It’s an industry dream,” said John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that the definition for outside air “makes it more likely that industry can increase air pollution and worsen air quality in surrounding communities and escape pollution control measures.”

The definition is likely to be of greatest benefit to industries with large plots of land that would be difficult to fence in, such as timber and lumber, or plants in rural areas.

“If you focus on air quality, it makes no sense whatsoever because molecules move from Point A to Point B regardless of whether there are drones or a river or a fence,” Walke said, but he was disappointed the EPA is making it easier, not tougher, for companies to skirt the Clean Air Act.

The EPA touted the new definition, part of a package of changes to the New Source Review (NSR) permitting process required of companies that build or modify a plant, as removing unnecessary obstacles to projects.

“NSR reforms are a key component of President Trump’s agenda to revitalize American manufacturing and grow our economy while continuing to protect and improve the environment,”  EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.

The EPA did not respond to questions from The Hill about how the ambient air definition would improve the environment. 

Streamlining the NSR process was one of many requests made by industry after an open call from President Trump for ideas about how to reduce unnecessary regulations. 

Tuesday’s guidance does not directly spell out what types of nonphysical barriers qualify, but an earlier version gives examples of how businesses can block the public from coming near harmful air.

“These measures may include traditional fencing, but may also include video surveillance and monitoring, clear signage, routine security patrols, drones, and other potential future technologies,” the draft said. 

Walke said “mentioning them was too easy to ridicule.”

The guidance comes as Trump repeated claims that he hopes to fight global warming by having clean air and water in the U.S. 

“I believe very strongly in very, very crystal clear, clean water and clean air,” he told reporters while attending a NATO meeting in London. 

Tags Andrew Wheeler Donald Trump New Source Review United States Environmental Protection Agency

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