Changing Standards for Air Pollution

By Jack Brownfield

While President Trump’s relationship with environmental groups has been rocky, recent decisions by members of his administration have created even more conflict. On January 25, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a memo revising how hazardous air pollution sources are classified. While supporters argue that the change will cut regulation while keeping strong protections for the environment in place, detractors fear that air pollution will increase significantly.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA regulates sources of air pollution according to how they are classified. The agency classifies the most severe polluters as “major sources,” while less severe ones are called “area sources.” But since 1995, the EPA has also followed a policy known as “Once-in Always-in,” which states that once a source is classified as “major,” it is regulated that way forever, even if it eventually reduces pollution to “area souce” levels. The January 25 memo ends this policy, letting pollution sources be re-classified once they reduce emissions to meet the lower threshold.

From the administration’s perspective, the move is common sense. Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said that the change “will reduce the regulatory burden for industries and the states, while continuing to ensure stringent and effective controls on hazardous air pollutants.” The EPA also argued that the old “Once-in Always-in” policy actually created a disincentive for polluters to clean up their facilities. If companies were always going to be regulated at the strictest level, the EPA argued, why would they make the effort to be more environmentally friendly? Finally, the EPA stated that they found “no statutory authority under the Clean Air Act to place a time limit” on reclassifying pollution sources. In other words, their decision to end the “Once-in Always-in” policy is really just a restoration of the original meaning of the law.

But others are not so thrilled with the change. The Natural Resources Defense Council called the decision “among the most dangerous actions that the Trump EPA has taken yet against public health.” Specifically, the new standard “weakens protective limits on air pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins.” Additionally, the move could give states more authority over air pollution, which environmentalists argue harms efforts to reduce pollution. Many states do not allow their citizens to sue for air quality permit violations, making it harder to prevent companies from violating the rules. More importantly, critics are skeptical that polluters will still reduce their emissions without being held to the higher “major source” level. Instead, they point out the possibility that the less strict rules will allow companies to regress from the progress they have already made. This could have serious consequences for public health, as Janice Nolan of the American Lung Association noted, and it would remove an important tool to enforce air quality laws. Finally, as Vox reports, the move has been favored by steel, paper, and chemical companies for years, and it has been a personal project for assistant administrator Wehrum. Wehrum attempted to undo the policy in 2007, only to be blocked by Congress. At that time, the EPA said that such a change “would be detrimental to the environment and undermine the intent” of the program.

Because the memo is only a guidance document, it does not have the force of law. Instead, it explains how the EPA will interpret the Clean Air Act going forward. Still, the decision will have a serious effect on the way air pollution is regulated in the United States, and it has gone mostly unnoticed by the public and media. Only time will tell whether the administration or its opponents are correct about the environmental consequences   of ending the “Once-in Always-in” policy.


Jack is a sophomore in the College studying English and Government and writes about domestic social and cultural issues.


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