By KEN WARD JR.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will extend by a year one of the key deadlines for states on a major regulation that aimed to further limit smog, the EPA announced in the latest Trump administration move to unravel Obama-era pollution rules.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision, announced after the close of business hours Tuesday, drew praise from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who said government officials and industry around the country haven’t had adequate time to comply with the federal mandate.
But in West Virginia, state government officials, just last year, were touting how the state was already meeting the new EPA smog standards. In September, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a news release to announce its latest data showing the state already complied with the new limits on smog, or low-level ozone.
“I think the fact that our ozone design values have continued to decrease and we are meeting [the] EPA’s most stringent ozone standard yet is a great testament to the success of our state and regional air pollution control programs,” then-DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said in the news release.
The DEP further detailed its findings in an annual air-quality report released last year. “I am happy to report that West Virginia’s eight-hour ozone monitoring sites are showing attainment with the new standard,” DEP air-quality director Fred Durham said in that report.
Neither Durham nor DEP spokesman Jake Glance responded to emails or phone messages Wednesday.
The EPA standard at issue addresses smog, which is not emitted directly into the air but forms when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds cook in the sun. Power plants, vehicle exhaust and many kinds of factories are major sources of ozone-causing emissions.
As of February, 115 million people — more than a third of the U.S. population — lived in areas classified as not attaining the old EPA smog standard and states have identified 214 counties — none of them in West Virginia — that are potentially violating the new standard, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Pruitt, in a letter sent to governors Tuesday, said the EPA is delaying for another year, until 2018, its designation of areas within each state that don’t meet the new smog standard. That designation begins a series of steps states then would have to take to comply with the limit. Pruitt said the move was made, in part, to avoid “interfering with local decisions or impeding economic growth.”
“So why is Pruitt extending designations for all areas, including West Virginia, which appears to deserve attainment designation?” said John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He is sabotaging implementation to buy time to repeal or weaken the smog standard.”
Already, the Trump administration had hinted that it might move to reverse the EPA’s new smog standard. EPA lawyers convinced a federal appeals court to postpone oral argument on an industry challenge to the standard, saying in a court filing that the agency was going to “closely review” the rule.
Among those challenging the smog standard are lawyers for Murray Energy, West Virginia’s largest coal producer. A spokesman for Murray said the company had no comment on the EPA’s latest action.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has been a critic of the EPA standard, and all members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, including Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, are co-sponsors of Capito’s legislation or of the companion House bill.
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