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EPA May Struggle to Meet Its Own Ozone Review Deadlines

May 17, 2019, 8:00 AM

The EPA is racing to meet its goal to review ozone pollution standards by the end of 2020, with a draft due early next year, but such a goal may not be possible and risks undermining the entire process, former agency employees and science advisers say.

The Environmental Protection Agency set a December 2020 goal to finish reviewing the 2015 air quality standards for ozone—a known lung irritant—and the 2012 standards for fine airborne particle pollution.

But the reviews under the Clean Air Act require a multi-step, time-consuming process that involves counsel from advisers on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). The agency must decide whether to keep the current limits on both pollutants or tighten them to be more protective of public health in light of the latest research.

Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt last May set an aggressive goal to streamline the review process for both pollutants to two years, down from the four- to eight-year time frame typical in the past.

“The public can expect to see a proposed decision by early 2020,” the EPA said about the ozone review in a May 15 email. The EPA has not set a specific timeline for the proposal on airborne particle pollution standards.

But current and former EPA science advisers and former employees say the timeline is too aggressive. The accelerated schedule is unrealistic and doesn’t account for the time EPA staff need to also review the current particulate matter standards, said John Bachmann, a former EPA associate director for science policy on air quality.

“This is not possible,” Bachmann said about the ozone proposal deadline. “That is barking mad.”

No Final Plan

The EPA has defended its timeline as necessary to get on track with five-year reviews mandated by the Clean Air Act. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has also supported the effort to accelerate the process.

Both ground-level ozone and fine particulates are formed by combustion of fossil fuels in power plants, or stationary or mobile engines. Industry is eagerly awaiting any decision, as tighter standards would mean more pollution controls on power plants, refineries, cars, and trucks to reduce smog and haze.

Last October, Wheeler disbanded the agency’s practice of using outside experts to assist the seven CASAC scientists conducting the reviews. He said the outside panels of experts took too long to provide advice.

Christopher Frey, a former chairman of the committee and an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University, said the move risks “steamrolling” the science in order to meet EPA’s self-imposed deadlines.

“The science review process not only was not broken, but was thorough, rigorous, appropriate, and consistent with law until political appointees interfered with it by making changes secretively and without input from career staff, CASAC, and the public,” he said in an interview.

Despite its deadline, the EPA hasn’t finalized how it will review the ozone limits. EPA staff released the draft in November and said the final plan would come in early 2019. That hasn’t happened yet.

That plan will spell out how the EPA’s science advisers should assess the latest science on the pollutants’ impact, examine risk exposure studies, and consider policy implications. After a series of other lengthy steps involving these assessments, the advisers will make a recommendation to Wheeler, who will decide whether the standards should be tightened or maintained.

Wehrum Meets With Staff

Wheeler is adamant that the EPA will meet its December 2020 deadline for both pollutants because it is no longer bogged down by the ad hoc subcommittee of experts.

“Part of the problem was having the subcommittees, which are not required under the statute” and took a lot of time, Wheeler told Senate appropriators April 3.

Senior EPA officials may also be getting an earful on the schedule.

In April, Bill Wehrum, the agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, met three times with his staff to discuss the status of ozone and particle pollution reviews, according to a record of his calendar obtained by Bloomberg Environment under a Freedom of Information Act request.

On April 24, he met to discuss the concerns raised by science advisers over the review of fine airborne particle pollution. The advisers want Wheeler to reinstate the outside panel of experts because they say they lack the expertise to assess the latest scientific research for particle pollution. They also want more time to review the scientific assessment.

And the EPA sidestepped questions from Bloomberg Environment on how it simultaneously plans to produce reviews of two major pollution standards—for ozone and for particle pollution—by the end of 2020.

The EPA now finds itself in a tight spot because of its decision to complete both standards so quickly, Bachmann said.

“They made mistakes in trying to hurry up the process, and the biggest mistake they made is in shortchanging the scientific review process,” he said.

—With assistance from Abby Smith.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com

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