Last-Minute Changes Will Improve Air Pollution Monitoring, EPA Says

Allegations that the White House watered down an EPA rule on air pollution monitors are false, according to a senior EPA official who says the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) actually made the rule stronger.

EPA Assistant Administrator for clean air Gina McCarthy told the Wonk Room, a blog of the Center for American Progress, that OIRA prompted EPA to rearrange the placement of air pollution monitors to ultimately better protect vulnerable populations, all without reducing the overall number of monitors. Wonk Room reports this quote from McCarthy:

[OMB] asked us, “Did we respond to the states’ comments?” We realized we could design the monitoring system in a better way than we had proposed. We could take the 40 monitors and place them by roadways near our most vulnerable populations. It was a significant win for us to be able to do that. It didn’t diminish the system. 

At issue is the air monitoring network for nitrogen dioxide pollution. Last month, EPA issued a final rule tightening the standard for nitrogen dioxide exposure and announced a new framework for detecting pollution levels by placing more monitors in urban areas, especially near roadways. EPA describes these environments as “high-risk.”

At first glance, it looked like OIRA had pushed EPA to reduce the overall number of monitors, just days before the rule was due. (I perpetuated that idea here.) But, according to McCarthy’s comments, the last-minute changes made to the monitoring network did not reduce the number of monitors; instead, the changes grant on-the-ground EPA and state officials more flexibility to site monitors themselves.

The change means that 41 fewer near-road monitors will be required, but that 40 more monitors will be required “in communities where susceptible and vulnerable populations are exposed to NO2.” Those communities may or may not be near roads – it’s up to EPA regional administrators, working with the states.

The rulemaking docket contains emails showing that another senior EPA official objected to a proposed reduction in the number of monitors. However, from McCarthy’s comments, it would appear the granting of authority to regional administrators appeased all sides, since the total number of monitors remains about the same.

This instance does not change my view that the rule-by-rule review required by Executive Order 12866 and carried out by OIRA is unnecessary and at times counterproductive. However, in this case, it seems OIRA worked with, not against, the EPA. “There was no arm-twisting involved,” McCarthy told Wonk Room.

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