WASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2018 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is quietly advancing plans to weaken national ambient air quality standards designed to protect public health, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).   EPA staff are being directed to implement industry-directed changes that enable increased public exposure to harmful pollutants in outdoor air.

William Wehrum, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, is holding meetings and briefings on this issue, with the most important briefing occurring today. He has told EPA staff from around the country that the agency will change policy to allow industry to exceed current ambient air standards over rivers, mountains, and other remote areas. These standards address air pollutants with known harmful effects on human health and the environment, including sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, lead, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and ozone.

“Under this plan, a lungful of fresh air will be much harder to come by,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Wehrum is a longtime industry lawyer who has pushed for major weakening of Clean Air Act standards. “This would be a giant step backwards in American public health policy.”

Since there is no statutory definition of ambient air, and the modeling and exposure methodologies are up to EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt and Wehrum, his air chief deputy, want to push the edge of the regulatory envelope to give industry increased “flexibility” by –

  • Changing the definition of ambient air to exclude some public lands such as industry-controlled corridors and remote hard-to reach terrains, such as rivers. Changing where the ambient air quality standards apply allows industry to pollute more; and
  • Altering air monitoring locations to minimize pollutant detection.

Wehrum has informed staff that he wants these changes reflected in official guidance as early as this spring.  Issuance as guidance, rather than a regulation, will both dampen public involvement and muddy the legal standards in any subsequent litigation challenge.

“This is precisely the type of backdoor, weasel-like maneuver that gave the Senate great pause in confirming Wehrum to this position,” added Ruch, pointing out that the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed him last fall but had denied Wehrum confirmation for the same post in the G.W. Bush administration. “Its current leadership is transforming EPA into the Enterprise Promotion Authority.”

Besides protection of public health, ambient air standards are a key component of the Clean Air Act mandate that EPA prevent any significant deterioration in the air quality in places such as national parks, wilderness areas, monuments, seashores, and other areas of special national or natural value. Industry groups pressing for these changes include the National Mining Association, American Iron and Steel Institute, American Forest and Paper Association, and American Petroleum Institute.

Look at the industry ambient air playbook

View longstanding EPA ambient air guidance