EPA sends ozone implementation rule to White House

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2017

With U.S. EPA nearing a key compliance deadline for its 2015 ground-level ozone standard, the agency has sent a related regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, according to the Reginfo.gov site.

The site describes the regulation as both a “proposed rule” and a “final action” that will “establish the air quality thresholds that define the classifications assigned to all nonattainment areas” for the 2015 standard.

EPA had proposed an implementation rule last November; agency staffers could not immediately be reached for comment this morning on the extent to which the current regulation is related to last year’s proposal. But Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association, said in an interview that the regulation is more related to attainment designations than to implementation, adding that it would set the thresholds to define where nonattainment areas fall on a sliding EPA scale that now ranges from “marginal” to “extreme” and how long they accordingly have to clean up.

“It’s the framework for putting together the plans that will allow them to meet the standard,” Nolen said.

EPA sent the regulation to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs last Thursday, the Reginfo.gov site indicates.

Ozone, a lung irritant that is the main ingredient in smog, is linked to asthma attacks in children and worsened breathing problems for people with emphysema and other chronic respiratory diseases.

Under the Obama administration, EPA tightened the ozone standard in October 2015 from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb, citing Clean Air Act requirements to protect public health in light of research showing that ozone is harmful at lower levels than previously thought. As a first step in the implementation process, states sent their attainment recommendations to EPA last fall; under a standard timetable, the agency is supposed to make final determinations by this Sunday, Oct. 1.

In June, however, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered a blanket one-year extension for those decisions until October 2018, citing the need for more information. Pruitt then reversed that decision last month, but in a recent report, EPA officials left open the possibility of providing “additional relief” (Greenwire, Aug. 25). The attainment designations are key to implementation of the tighter ozone standard because they start the clock for out-of-compliance areas to come up with cleanup plans.

Meanwhile, a coalition of public health and environmental groups — later joined by 15 states and the District of Columbia — filed suit in July with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to block the initial blanket delay in attainment designations. While EPA attorneys have asked the court to dismiss the litigation as moot in light of Pruitt’s reversal, the plaintiffs are seeking to keep it alive on the grounds that EPA could again attempt a postponement (Greenwire, Aug. 15).

As of this morning, the court had not ruled. John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is among the plaintiffs, said in an interview today that the court may be waiting to see what happens by Oct. 1.