EPA to Rescind East Texas Air-Quality Nonattainment Designation

Published October 10, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes to reverse the agency’s 2016 designation of parts of five east Texas counties near a large coal-fueled power plant as being in nonattainment for sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA).

EPA determined the nonattainment designation made by the agency under President Barack Obama relied too heavily on air modeling conducted by the environmental activist Sierra Club, instead of real-world measurements.

Back to Normal Practice

In a proposed rule submitted to the Federal Register on August 22, EPA says it should have given “greater weight” to ambient air monitors in and around Anderson, Freestone, Panola, Rusk, and Titus Counties when determining whether SO2 emitted from the 2,250-megawatt coal-fueled Martin Lake Power Plant, located in Rusk County, Texas, put the counties into nonattainment.

It is usual practice for EPA and states, like Texas, which operate federal air quality programs within their borders, to give more weight to ambient air quality data measured by air monitors than to computer models when determining pollution levels. EPA’s decision, at the end of Barack Obama’s term as president, to give less weight to air monitor data than to Sierra Club’s computer model projections when determining the Texas counties were in nonattainment represented a break from normal protocol.

Big Consequences

Under the CAA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), areas with persistent air quality problems are often designated by EPA as in nonattainment. Nonattainment areas are declared for specific pollutants. Nonattainment areas for different pollutants may overlap each other or share common boundaries.

State and local officials face significant incentives to avoid nonattainment status or to remove the stigma as soon as possible.

Areas considered in to be in nonattainment can have operating restrictions placed on existing industries and be precluded from siting new industries that provide job opportunities and local government tax revenues. It can also lead to the loss of federal highway funding.

Transitioning from nonattainment to attainment is usually a long and expensive process involving the development of a comprehensive plan to improve an area’s air quality and getting local governments and businesses to comply with the plan.

Power Plants OK

The EPA’s decision to reverse its nonattainment determination came in response to petitions filed by Luminant Generation, which operates the Martin Lake Power Plant, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) requesting it do so.

The Martin Lake Power Plant, which opened in 1977 and was retrofitted with selective catalytic reduction in 2008 to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, uses fuel from nearby lignite mines and coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

EPA now proposes to designate the area as “unclassifiable,” which, for regulatory purposes, is the same as being classified as in attainment.

EPA’s proposed rule would also rescind nonattainment designations for two other areas in Texas which were, at the time of being designated as in nonattainment, home to Luminant power plants that closed after 2016.

Legal Action Threatened

The Sierra Club is threatening to sue the Trump administration to overturn its reversal of the nonattainment classification.

A press release from the organization says the agency considered arguments from Luminant and TCEQ that data from air monitors was superior to its modelling at the time it classified the counties as being in nonattainment.

“SO2 pollution from Martin Lake has more than doubled since 2016, and the plant is now the single largest emitter of dangerous sulfur dioxide in the country,” claimed Chrissy Mann, a senior representative of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, in the press release.

The Federal Register notice refers to the EPA’s action as “correcting an error” the agency made during the Obama administration in designating the Texas counties as being in nonattainment.

“Under our Clean Air Act (CAA or Act) authority to correct errors, the EPA is proposing that we erred in not giving greater weight to Texas’ preference to characterize air quality through monitoring, and steps undertaken by Texas to begin monitoring in these three areas, when considering all available information; in relying on available air quality analyses in making the initial designations that the EPA recognizes included certain limitations; or a combination of these two issues,” wrote EPA in its proposed rule.

‘War on Affordable Energy’

EPA is right to decide to rely on air monitoring data instead of pollution projections from models, says Dan Kish, a distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research.

“It’s good to see the Trump administration use actual data from air monitoring, rather than relying on Sierra Club modeling, which the Obama EPA was happy to do,” Kish said. “Collecting data is much more reasonable than projecting from models.

“The Obama administration’s last-minute decision in 2016, shortly before leaving office, was consistent with their pattern of waging war on affordable energy,” Kish said.

Good data is critical to determining air quality, something the Obama administration ignored, says Craig Rucker, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).

“Areas that are in nonattainment of national air quality standards should make every effort to come into compliance for public health and economic reasons,” Rucker said. “But for the Obama administration to impose this stigma on communities based on little more than rigged modeling is a disgrace.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and a senior policy analyst with CFACT.