NJ, Other States Challenge Federal Failure to Curb Coal-Plant Pollution

Tom Johnson | February 4, 2019 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey and others in Northeast blame Environmental Protection Agency for not clamping down on emissions from upwind states

coal-burning plant
New Jersey is joining another multi-state effort challenging the federal government’s failure to clamp down on pollution from coal-burning power plants that contribute to unhealthy air in the Northeast.

The litigation, filed by six states and New York City, stems from a decision in December by the administration of President Donald Trump to take no further action to control emissions of ground-level ozone from sources in upwind states until 2023 at the earliest.

In a petition filed last week in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, New Jersey and other states aim to hold the federal Environmental Protection Agency to a promise to impose stricter ozone-emission standards from upwind states. The agency backed off a commitment in 2016 to reduce ozone pollution, largely coming from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest and South.

Ground-level ozone — more commonly known as smog — is a pollutant that is unhealthy for children, the elderly and those with respiratory ailments. It forms during hot summer months when sun bakes a mixture of pollutants emitted by cars, trucks, factories and power plants.

Despite having some of the most stringent pollution controls on those sources in the country, New Jersey has never achieved the federal air-quality standard for ozone, a dubious distinction it blames on upwind pollution from states with coal-burning power plants like Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.

‘…ignoring the consequences’

“Although New Jersey has done its part to protect our residents and our children from ozone pollution, coal-burning plants in other states keep on ignoring the consequences of their actions,’’ said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

The Clean Air Act protects states like New Jersey from pollution coming from other states, he said. The EPA and those upwind states have a responsibility to keep out-of-state polluters in check, Grewal added.

Although the Clean Air Act requires states to act as “good neighbors’’ by controlling air pollution that significantly contributes to the non-attainment of federal air-quality standards in other states, many states have taken little or no action to meet those obligations, according to state officials.

The EPA’s new rule fails to require meaningful emission reductions from upwind states even though its own air-pollution modeling shows those states are contributing to non-attainment in New Jersey.

Grewal: ‘We demand EPA work with us’

“We are vigilant about holding air polluters accountable within our borders, but we can’t do it alone,’’ Grewal said. “Without emissions reduction in other states, we cannot meet our emissions targets. We demand EPA work with us, not against us, on this public health issue.’’

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe agreed. “It is unconscionable that the Trump administration is backpedaling from policies that would reduce power plant emissions and provide marked health benefits for those states and all states downwind from them,’’ she said.

New Jersey has been aggressive in challenging Trump administration initiatives to weaken air pollution laws. This past summer, Grewal joined other states against a move by the EPA that would have relaxed diesel emissions from trucks, a step the agency later reversed.

This past fall, New Jersey joined 20 other states to challenge the EPA’s bid to roll back fuel-economy standards from light-duty vehicles, a step critics say would hinder efforts to curb global warming.