The federal Environmental Protection Agency, in an unexpected reversal, has decided to move forward on an Obama administration rule to reduce smog, one of the nation’s and New Jersey’s most ubiquitous air pollutants.
In a statement issued late Thursday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who announced in June he would delay the implementation of the regulation, backed off that decision, saying he would work with the states through the process.
His action comes one day after 15 states, the Sierra Club, and other groups sued the agency for blocking the rule from taking effect on October 1. The regulation aims to curb smog, or ground-level ozone, by tightening the federal health-quality standard for the pollutant. New Jersey was not a party to the suit.
New Jersey has never achieved that standard since the Clean Air Act was enacted more than 40 years ago. Last year, there were 24 days when the state exceeded the standard, which is designed to reduce exposure to a pollutant that is unhealthy for kids, the elderly, and those with respiratory diseases.
Ozone forms in hot, sunny weather, typically during the summer, when emissions from power plants, manufacturers, and vehicles bake together to form smog. Much of the state’s smog is wind-blown pollution from other states with weaker emission standards than New Jersey.
If the rule goes ahead, it could force states failing to achieve the standard to adopt tougher curbs on sources of ozone pollution, a step that could lead to more stringent or new emission standards on vehicles, consumer products, and sources contributing to smog.
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection proposed a series of rules to clamp down on pollution from small turbines and stationary engines.
In his statement, Pruitt noted the Clean Air Act gives the agency the flexibility to allow one additional year for sufficient information to support ozone designations, a course the EPA may take in the future.
The administrator pledged the agency will work with states to help with technical issues and disputed designations of what areas are attaining or not attaining the standard.
Clean air advocates hailed the announcement to move ahead with the rule. The earlier decision was perceived by some as the latest effort by the Trump administration to dismantle environmental initiatives embraced by the former Obama administration.
“In New Jersey, we needed this rule because we are seeing more and earlier bad ozone days making it harder for people to breathe,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, whose national organization was part of the lawsuit. “Almost every county that conducts monitoring has a failing grade for ozone.’’
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called the EPA’s sudden reversal a “clear sign the Trump administration is overreaching on environmental rollbacks.’’
The proposal tightens the level of ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb.