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Trump administration broke the law by failing to implement smog rule, federal court rules

A federal judge in California ruled that the nation’s top environmental official, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, violated the law by missing the deadline to implement the agency’s ozone pollution rule. 

In his decision, Federal District Court Judge Haywood Stirling Gilliam Jr. wrote that Pruitt broke the law under the Clean Air Act by failing to identify which areas in the United States have smog levels that violate the nation’s ozone health standards.

The EPA revised its national ambient air quality standards in 2015 under the Obama administration, but Pruitt missed the October 1, 2017 deadline to announce the areas that were in compliance under the ozone pollution rule. Pruitt subsequently announced findings only for areas in compliance, not those out of compliance.  

“There is no dispute as to liability: Defendants admit that the Administrator violated his nondiscretionary duty under the Clean Air Act,” wrote Gilliam. 

Gilliam ordered the EPA to publish it’s findings for most of country by next month, on April 30, and by July 17, 2018 for eight counties in San Antonio, Texas, rejecting the agency’s request for more time to determine whether those counties are violating the ozone standard.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization in the Obama EPA, said he was pleased with the court’s decision, but is also displeased with the Trump administration’s slow pace in tackling the pollution problem across the country.

“Each day that they move slowly, they place our most vulnerable communities, especially our children’s lives, in jeopardy,” Ali told ThinkProgress.

“We know that in our communities — African American, Latino communities, and some Asian American communities as well — that we are disproportionately impacted by air pollution and that we have higher levels of asthma and asthma attacks, so each day that they move slowly it places our children in harm’s way,” said Ali, who is now senior vice president for climate, environmental justice and community revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, a civil and human rights organization.

The nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, which filed a lawsuit in December against the EPA for failing to identify violators by the deadline, praised the court’s decision. Once the EPA identifies the areas out compliance, the work of cleaning up elevated smog levels can begin, the nonprofit noted in a press release.

“Everyone deserves to breathe clean air. And because of the Clean Air Act, we’re legally entitled to it. The court got it right when it ordered the EPA to finish making ozone designations sooner than the agency requested,” said attorney Seth Johnson, who represented Earthjustice in the case, in a statement.  

The lawsuit represented a broad coalition of environmental and health groups, including the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, among others.

The Environmental Defense Fund and Environmental Law and Policy Center also challenged in court Pruitt’s delay in implementing the smog protections. And last December, a coalition of 15 attorneys general, led by California California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, filed a separate lawsuit that the federal court merged into one case.

Becerra, who filed that lawsuit in conjunction with the California Air Resources Board, said at the time that it was imperative that the EPA implement the smog-reducing standards. He promised that the California Department of Justice would refuse to let the EPA blatantly violate the Clean Air Act.

On Monday, Becerra noted that the smog-reducing requirements will be life-saving and protect the health of hundreds of thousands of children.

“We will closely monitor the EPA to make sure it complies with the Court’s order. We stand ready to do what’s necessary to ensure that the EPA does not shirk its legal responsibilities,” he said in a statement.

Once the EPA identifies which areas are violating the smog standards, those jurisdictions “must take immediate steps to improve” air quality and develop a compliance plan, according to Becerra.

But Ali noted that the most difficult work begins once those areas are identified, and this will be challenging given EPA budget cuts and what he described as a lack of inspectors.

“The agency and others have to do the tough work of making sure that they are properly engaging with folks to educate them on what the impacts are, and the changes that can happen,” said Ali. “The agency continues to not move forward in a positive direction, and they’re going to have to deal the legal ramifications of their lack of action.”

When the standards were adopted, the EPA projected that compliance with the standards would create billions of dollars worth of health benefits every year, even after subtracting costs, according to Becerra.

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