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  August 4, 2017

EPA Calls Off Delay of Obama-Era Smog Regulations

Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson, who worked on litigation against the EPA, says that this retreat is a victory for public health - but that there is still work to be done
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Seth Johnson is an attorney at Earthjustice, the nation's premier environmental law organization. He has extensive experience with the Clean Air Act and represented a coalition of public health and environmental groups in litigation over EPA's delay in implementing the 2015 health standard for ozone.


DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Dharna Noor coming to you from Baltimore. This week marks an environmental victory, as Trump's Environmental Protection Agency under the helm of climate change denier Scott Pruitt has backed down on the proposed delay for cleaner safeguards contained in the Obama-era ozone pollution regulation. The EPA announced on Wednesday that it will comply with the original October 1st deadline. This came a day after 16 states' Attorneys General filed a lawsuit over the delay, saying that the EPA had no legal basis for delaying the implementation of the 2015 smog standard and that a delay would endanger the public health and safety of millions. Representing a coalition of public health and environmental groups, the environmental law organization Earthjustice also sued the EPA in July over the delay in implementing the 2015 health standard for ozone.

Joining us now from D.C. to discuss this is Seth Johnson. Seth's the attorney at Earthjustice, who represented that coalition of public health and environmental groups in this case. Thanks so much for joining us today.

SETH JOHNSON: It's nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: First, let me just congratulate you on this environmental victory.

SETH JOHNSON: Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. It's nice to get a win, and it's nice to get a win on something that's going to improve people's lives and people's health.

DHARNA NOOR: Spell out for us what exactly that means. What does that victory mean in terms of public health? What would a delay of even one year of implementing the ozone regulation have meant?

SETH JOHNSON: Well, EPA itself estimated that once all parts of the United States comply with the 2015 smog standard, it'll save hundreds of lives and it'll prevent hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks in children. I should correct myself. That's not in all parts of the United States. That's excluding California, which is going to take longer to come into compliance with the smog standard. But by delaying implementation of the standard by a year, EPA would be delaying those benefits by a year. It means hundreds of people would be killed unnecessarily, hundreds of children would experience asthma attacks unnecessarily, and children would have to stay home from school unnecessarily because of ozone pollution.

DHARNA NOOR: Talk a bit about the legal groundwork for your case had it gone forward. Why was it, as you said, illegal to delay this rule in terms of the Clean Air Act?

SETH JOHNSON: Implementing a smog standard, getting the air cleaned up, is a lengthy process, and the first step in that process is identifying what areas have dirty air, what areas are going to have to clean up the air pollution to make life better for their residents. What the administration had done was to delay making that identification by one year.

The statute, the Clean Air Act, allows EPA to delay those designations only if the EPA has insufficient information to make those designations. EPA never found that it had insufficient information here. It never explained what information it was lacking. It wasn't lacking any. Every state in the country and a number of tribes had given the agency recommendations on areas that violated the standard and areas that complied with the standard. They made their deadline. It was time for the agency to make its. But instead, the Trump/Pruitt EPA tried to shirk its duty.

We went to court in July. We asked the court here in Washington, D.C., for immediate release. EPA was due to respond to our lawsuit yesterday, on Thursday, and late on Wednesday it withdrew the delay.

DHARNA NOOR: With this new rule coming into play in October, talk about the work that's still to be done in terms of protecting the public from smog, and also generally fossil fuel driving climate change.

SETH JOHNSON: First thing is to make sure that EPA actually does hit its deadline. While the EPA withdrew the full one-year delay for every part of the country, it did not say it's definitely going to hit its deadline for every part of the country, and we're going to keep watch-dogging it to make sure that it does. We went to court once to hold this administration to account, and we won't hesitate to go back. Both health and environmental groups are watching.

Once designations get made, that'll mean that new large sources of air pollution, like factories, power plants, oil refineries, they're going to have to install and operate the best pollution control equipment available, and they're going to have to get offsets. They're going to have to secure reductions of pollution that offset the additional pollution they're going to add in areas that violate the standard, and so it'll lead to reductions in that way. It'll also lead to reductions from existing sources of air pollution like existing oil refineries. They'll have to install reasonably available control technology to reduce emissions of ozone-forming pollutants.

DHARNA NOOR: I also understand that the Clean Air Act is still under attack from Congress. Can you tell us about that a little bit?

SETH JOHNSON: It is. There are bills pending in Congress that would delay the implementation of this 2015 clean air protection by eight years. If one year of delay would be bad, you know that eight years would be much worse. One of those bills passed the House on a tight, nearly party line vote. I think more Republicans flipped to oppose the bill then Democrats flipped to back the bill. There is a companion bill that was introduced in the Senate, and that remains pending. I think it's still in committee.

But we're keeping a watchful eye on all of these things, and we're deeply concerned. The Clean Air Act has worked over the last, gosh, 40 years to reduce air pollution, improve people's lives, while still allowing for substantial economic growth. It's worked, and there's no reason to get away from it.

DHARNA NOOR: What can we do to further safeguard our air quality and public health from these political assaults in terms of public policy, for example.

SETH JOHNSON: When agencies try to withdraw rules or to weaken rules, as this EPA has done for safeguards against methane pollution from oil and gas facilities, they have to go through a public comment period. I would encourage people who are concerned about these issues to get updates from public health and environmental organizations that are tracking these issues and can help you know when there's a public comment period, and to contact the agency that's proposing it and to contact your senators and your representative to urge them to hold strong to protect public health and the environment against threats.

DHARNA NOOR: Seth, thank you so much for joining us, and be sure to keep us posted.

SETH JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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