11/1999 Junk Science Report: Smog and Mirrors

Published December 1, 1999

New York’s attorney general plans to seek “enormous” legal damages from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest and South unless they stop polluting New York’s air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cheering on Eliot Spitzer, saying, “We are absolutely supportive of any state’s effort to secure cleaner air for its citizens.”

But Spitzer and the EPA pom-pom team are really only trying to shift the blame for local air pollution–and the costs of reducing it–to the politically disadvantaged Midwest. Even if it succeeds, this power play won’t help New Yorkers breathe easier.

The federal Clean Air Act threatens states with the loss of federal highway money unless they comply with its standards for a variety of pollutants, including ground-level ozone, or smog. EPA is the arbiter of whether a state is in compliance with the law.

Since the 1980s, New York and other Northeastern states have complained that emissions from the Midwest drift eastward to cause smog that makes it impossible for them to meet the federal pollution standards. Northeastern states formed the Ozone Transport Commission, which lobbied EPA to address the issue. The agency responded in 1994 by assembling scientists and state-level environmental officials into the Ozone Transport Assessment Group.

But as is now standard operating procedure at EPA, politics outweighed experts.

OTAG reported in June 1997 that while emissions from the Midwest do drift easterly, the effect on Northeast smog is small compared with the effect of local sources, and even that small effect depends on the weather. OTAG also concluded that the sources of emissions that may be causing high smog levels cannot be traced, and the number of smog sources outside the Northeast is so large that controlling them would be enormous and without guarantee of any improvement in air quality.

Knowing that a tight ozone standard would cost Northeastern states more than $9.6 billion annually, the most political EPA administrator ever, Carol Browner, disregarded OTAG’s findings. She decided to shift the cost from the more Democratic northeastern states over to the more Republican Midwestern and southern states.

In September 1998, EPA ordered 22 states to significantly reduce emissions of ozone precursors. More than half the reductions were to come from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in the form of a crackdown on power plant emissions.

Faced with billions of dollars in unjustified costs, several of the Midwest states and power plants sued EPA. A federal appeals court suspended the EPA rule last May, giving the Midwest more leverage in negotiating with the agency on how the ozone transport issue should be addressed. So now Spitzer has taken up the blame-shift gauntlet, planning to sue Midwest power plants based on an obscure provision of the Clean Air Act requiring upgraded emissions control equipment when other major investments are made in power plants.

The truth is, even if all Midwest power plants shut down, Northeast air quality would remain the same–that is, greatly improved. Fairfield County, the New York City area’s smoggiest county, now exceeds federal air pollution standards fewer than five days a year, down from 30 days in 1980.

While cleaner air may be a laudable goal, Spitzer’s unfounded lawsuit and EPA’s blatant politics are enough to make you choke.

Steven J. Milloy publishes Junkscience.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.