EPA to finalize all ozone designations by April

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 5, 2018

U.S. EPA, facing a court-ordered deadline to spell out its plans, expects to wrap up work on an overdue round of compliance decisions for its 2015 ground-level ozone standard within the next four months.

The agency “intends to complete” remaining area attainment designations by April 30, according to a notice set for publication in tomorrow’s Federal Register. “This would complete the designation process” for the 70-parts-per-billion standard, the notice said.

The April date, inserted almost as an aside to a routine filing, would appear to address a question entwined in several lawsuits.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA officials were supposed to have made all designations by the beginning of last October. While Administrator Scott Pruitt in November declared most of the country to be effectively in attainment, he has put off thornier decisions on heavily populated parts of Utah, California and other areas that are unlikely to meet the 70-ppb limit.

The foot-dragging has prompted litigation from public health groups and Democratic-led states; last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered EPA to say “with precision and specificity” by Jan. 12 when it will issue a final rule setting the remaining designations (Greenwire, Dec. 20, 2017).

In an earlier interview, recently installed air chief Bill Wehrum had said that he expected to reach that point by this spring. Days after the court’s order, the agency provided a more concrete indication of its schedule with the announcement that it was giving states the customary four-month heads-up for proposed changes to their attainment recommendations (E&E News PM, Dec. 22, 2017).

With tomorrow’s Federal Register publication, the agency is opening a 30-day public comment period on those proposals.

Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, is a lung irritant linked to airway inflammation and asthma attacks in children.

Under the Obama administration, EPA had tightened the standard in October 2015 from 75 ppb to 70 ppb on the grounds that the change was needed to adequately protect public health.

From an enforcement standpoint, the designations are a major milestone because they start the clock for states to come up with cleanup plans for nonattainment areas. Because ozone is closely tied to emissions from the production and consumption of fossil fuels, the oil, gas and coal industries all stand to be affected by the stricter threshold.

In his previous job as Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt had sued to void the 2015 standard. Industry groups, noting that dozens of cities and other areas are still out of compliance with the earlier 75 ppb standard, set in 2008, have been lobbying to delay implementation of the more recent limit.

Under H.R. 806, a House-passed bill sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), attainment designations for the 70-ppb standard would be pushed back until 2025. Both Olson’s bill and S. 263, a companion measure introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), are awaiting action by the Senate Environment and Public Works