Brace Yourself for Unhealthy Air: The Trump Administration Weakens Clean Air Protections

April 13, 2018 | 9:41 am
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Yesterday the Trump administration started chipping away at one of the strongest science-based public health protections we have in the country. In a laundry list of industry wishes, President Trump has ordered the EPA to make several sweeping changes to how it implements ambient air pollution standards.

I’m saddened at the potential for this to weaken the clean air protections we enjoy every day because of our nation’s long history of strong science-based policies. Other countries have strict air pollution laws but not all of them come with teeth. In the US, we are lucky to have air pollution laws at work. They work because they require decisions be made based on what’s protective of public health not on what’s convenient for regulated industries. And importantly, the Clean Air Act includes consequences for failure to meet air pollution standards, ensuring strong incentives for states and industries to comply.

I’ve been proud to live in a country where these protections save thousands of lives and prevent thousands more respiratory illnesses, cardiac illnesses, and missed work and school days every year. But now it’s less clear if my family and yours will enjoy the same.

Here are four ways the new executive order will undermine our science-based air pollution protections.

1. Requiring science advisors to consider non-scientific information in their advice to EPA

This is one of the most concerning changes in the executive order. The EPA relies on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) for independent scientific advice on where the agency should set air pollution standards in order to protect of public health. Comprised of air pollution and health experts from universities and other entities outside of the EPA, the committee dives deep on exactly what the science says about the relationship between air pollutants and the health of Americans. This system has worked remarkably well to ensure the EPA is making decisions consistent with the current science and holding the agency accountable when it doesn’t. (See more on the important role of CASAC and the independent science that feeds into the EPA process here and here).

In a striking reversal of precedent, the president’s order asks the committee to also consider “adverse public health or other effects that may result from implementation of revised air quality standards.” This is scientifically problematic and likely illegal.

The Clean Air Act mandates that ambient air pollution standards be determined by what is protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety—and that’s it. Economic impacts, costs to industry, etc. cannot be considered. The Supreme Court affirmed this in 2001 in its Whitman v. American Trucking Association decision. Ordering the EPA’s science advisers to consider information outside of the health impacts of pollutants shoves a wrench into a functional science-based process for protecting the nation’s health.

This move builds on other administration efforts to weaken the technical chops of CASAC and other government science advisory committees, by allowing them to sit idle and replacing qualified independent scientists with conflicted or unqualified individuals.

The order’s section on science advisers also signals that the agency will explore ways to “ensure transparency in … scientific evidence” considered by the committee, in what is likely a nod to the Trump administration’s expected move on addressing “secret science.” (Learn more on the many reasons this proposal is flawed.)

2. Restricting the science that can be used to protect public health

Many more people could now be living in areas that evade air pollution protections, thanks to a provision that limits what scientific information the agency can use to determine who is breathing bad air.

The Trump administration just moved to weaken our nation’s strong ambient air pollution protections, paving the road for increased pollution across the country.

The order includes an innocuous-seeming provision declaring that the agency should “rely on data from EPA-approved air quality monitors” to decide which areas need to improve their air. The EPA, of course, already relies heavily on monitoring data to make decisions about where air pollution standards are being met. But it can’t do this everywhere. Not every county or jurisdiction will have a monitor (accurate long-term monitoring isn’t cheap), so in areas without monitors for specific pollutants the EPA uses modeling or satellite information to determine air quality.

This can be a cost-effective way to determine where air is unhealthy and for some pollutants it can be impressively accurate. For example, for pollutants like ozone that form in the atmosphere, scientists know that ozone levels are very consistent over large distances, i.e. if a monitor tells me ozone levels are high, I’m confident that ozone levels are also high five miles down the road.

For other pollutants, modeling can be crucial for ensuring that people are protected from industrial emissions. Sulfur dioxide, for example, is emitted from coal-fired power plants and its concentrations can vary a lot over space, i.e. a place directly downwind of a power plant could get hit hard with sulfur dioxide pollution, while an area five miles away could have clean air. In these cases, modeling air pollution concentrations can allow the EPA to protect people from pollution that might otherwise be harder to characterize through a few monitors. (If you want to know more on this point, I know a good dissertation.)

Preventing the EPA from fully using available tools for scientific assessments means many areas, especially suburban or rural areas, could have unhealthy air that goes unnoticed and won’t be cleaned up.

3. Increasing demands without increasing resources for the EPA and states

Several provisions of the executive order focus on expediting permitting and implementation processes. In theory, this is a good idea. We would all benefit from more time-efficient government processes. However, it cannot be done in a vacuum. The EPA has been asked to do more with less over the years. Expecting the agency to expedite processes without providing additional resources could mean cutting corners or less rigorous analysis. This wouldn’t help the agency meet its mission of protecting people from air pollution; it would make it easier for lapses in implementation to happen.

This is especially true when we look at permitting processes, which are largely handled by the states. States won’t have additional resources to conduct air pollution modeling, analyze measurements, and evaluate permit applications for new industrial sources. Asking them to expedite this process could make it easier for industrial sources to be built in already polluted areas.

4. Allowing for more pollution in already hard-hit areas

In several ways, the order stands to increase pollution in areas that already face disproportionate impacts from air pollution. In addition to the expedited permitting discussed above, the rule also allows for interstate trading of pollutant emissions. Such schemes have worked well in the past (e.g. we’ve been remarkably successful at reducing acid rain), but in this case, it will be important to watch closely how this is implemented. For the ambient air pollutants that fall under this order and some of their precursors, there are acute health effects. Thus, in a trading scheme, someone will get the short end of the stick in terms of breathing bad air.

In other words, trading emissions might allow one state to breathe cleaner air and emissions could be reduced overall, but that means another area will see an increase in emissions. When the pollutant in question has adverse health impacts, that’s a big problem for anyone living downwind of a plant that bought those emissions credits. Similarly, states that depend on interstate cooperation to reduce pollution in their borders are also likely to get a sore deal here, as Senator Tom Carper of Delaware rightfully pointed out yesterday in a statement.

Already, the Clean Air Act doesn’t do a great job of improving air quality in hotspots where pollutant levels may be uncharacteristically high compared to the surrounding areas. This executive order could make that problem worse. As Alex Kauffman discussed on the Huffington Post yesterday, the people most affected by this are likely to be communities of color, which are already burdened with disproportionately high levels of air pollution across the country. This of course adds to many other steps the administration has taken that worsen inequities in pollution exposure.

Brace yourself for bad air

The bottom line is that the president’s order is bad news for anyone that breathes air in this country. It represents a chipping away at the strong air pollution protections we’ve enjoyed for decades. It doesn’t serve the public interest and it certainly doesn’t advance the EPA’s mission of protecting public health. It serves only those who wish to pollute, exposing more American to unhealthy air. And this will come with consequences for our health. The fate of this new order will likely play out in the courts, but in the meantime, I wish we could all just hold our breath.