Trump and EPA Have Been Making Controversial Decisions Over America's Air Quality During Coronavirus Pandemic

Donald Trump's administration has successfully rolled back, or taken steps to weaken, nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations since the president entered the Oval Office in 2016.

These deregulatory efforts have not stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, with experts telling Newsweek the administration is using the crisis as a cover to push through changes while the nation is distracted. As the country grappled with the worst of the outbreak between March and May, the administration made several significant announcements relating to air pollution regulations that critics say may be damaging to public health. Some studies suggest that poor air quality could play a role in the severity of coronavirus.

National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter

In April Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency was going to retain a piece of legislation called the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for Particulate Matter without changes. While retaining a piece of legislation may seem harmless, the move has been heavily criticized by environmental advocates.

The decision to retain the NAAQS in its current form came despite strong recommendations to strengthen the regulations from the agency's own Science Advisory Board and former members of an independent panel of scientists that previously advised EPA. This panel was dismissed by the agency in 2018.

"It's actually pretty remarkable," Ellen Kurlansky, a former air policy Analyst at EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, told Newsweek. "The NAAQS has to be revisited periodically, every five years, and there's a process for reviewing the new science and the health impacts of particulate matter. All the indications are that the particulate matter standard needs to be tightened, but they did not do that."

NAAQS regulates fine atmospheric pollutants such as PM2.5—a term referring to tiny, inhalable particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller that are emitted by various sources such as vehicles and power plants. Research has demonstrated that long-term exposure to PM2.5 is associated with a variety of health problems including heart attacks, aggravated asthma, and respiratory problems such as inflammation, airway irritations, coughing or difficulty breathing. Exposure has also been linked to premature death in people with heart or lung diseases. Recent research has even suggested that PM2.5 could have a role to play in COVID-19 fatality.

Members of the independent panel dismissed by the EPA in 2018 have recently criticized the proposal to retain the current NAAQS. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, they say that the current particulate matter air quality standard is now outdated and does not protect public health, allowing tens of thousands of premature deaths every year in the U.S.

air pollution
Vehicles move along the The New Jersey Turnpike Way while a Factory emits smoke on November 17, 2017 in Carteret, New Jersey. Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

"EPA is ignoring science and the law in proposing to keep a standard that needs to be changed to protect public health and is callously and egregiously ignoring its legal obligation to protect populations that are highly exposed and highly at risk to adverse effects from particulate matter, including black communities," Chris Frey, professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University and author of the study, said in a statement provided to Newsweek.

Gretchen Goldman, research director with the Center for Science in Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, said Wheeler has ignored compelling evidence in favor of a predetermined decision to not strengthen the NAAQS. "Administrator Wheeler has rigged this process to get the result he wanted—no strengthening of standards to protect people from the harmful effects of particulate pollution," Goldman said in a statement.

"This decision comes as no surprise, but it's appalling nonetheless. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set particulate pollution standards that protect public health. The EPA's draft rule is a willful abandonment of science, at a real cost to human life. In the midst of a pandemic of a disease that wreaks havoc on the respiratory system, Wheeler's indifference to our health is inexcusable."

When presented with this view, an EPA spokesperson did not comment on the criticism that the regulations were not strengthened, simply saying that retaining, without revision, the existing NAAQS regulation does not allow for any increases in particulate matter pollution.

Mercury and Air Toxic Standards

In 2012, under the Obama administration, the EPA enacted a rule known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in order to establish regulatory limits on the emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants from coal- and oil-burning power plants.

In the U.S., power plants are the biggest emitters of mercury—a potent neurotoxin. Exposure to this substance has been linked to severe damage to the lungs, brain, heart and other organs. Fetuses growing inside pregnant women are especially vulnerable to mercury, when their developing brains and other key organs are most at risk.

Under Obama, the EPA found it was "appropriate and necessary" to regulate power plants to limit these pollutants, creating a legal argument that formed the foundation of the MATS regulation. However, in April, the EPA reversed this finding, deeming that it was no longer "appropriate and necessary."

The EPA argued the costs of compliance significantly outweighed the public health and financial benefits of the regulation. However, this analysis has been criticized by advocacy groups, such as the Environmental Protection Network (EPN)—a bipartisan organization whose membership is composed of former EPA officials—as well as the agency's own Science Advisory Board.

The reversal of the "appropriate and necessary" finding has also been met with opposition from many power utility companies, the majority of which are in compliance with the MATS rule having spent billions to install equipment that reduces mercury emissions. According to Janet McCabe, a professor at Indiana University (IU) McKinney School of Law and director of IU's Environmental Resilience Institute, MATS has been an "overwhelming success" with mercury emissions from U.S. coal plants falling 85 percent between 2006-2016.

While the EPA's changes to the rule do not mean that power plants can remove their pollution control equipment, Kurlansky said the EPA's reversal could have profound negative consequences in future because the decision undermines MATS by removing its legal foundation.

According to Kurlansky, MATS is now vulnerable to lawsuits that could potentially be launched by companies opposed to the regulation and that want to overturn the standards protecting public health. Among those who have previously criticized MATS is the National Mining Association, which says the rule has contributed to the closure of hundreds of coal-fired plants over the past few years.

In 2016, an analysis by the EPA under the Obama administration found that reducing mercury emissions from coal power plants was worth it because the savings on healthcare costs would outweigh the costs of compliance.

These calculations took into account how the equipment used to control mercury emissions also reduces other harmful pollutants. However, the new EPA cost-benefit calculations ignore the benefits of reducing these other hazardous emissions, critics say.

"This action, which is a gift to the coal industry at the expense of all Americans, is an attack on public health justified by a phony cost-benefit analysis that purposely inflates the cost of MATS and ignores the value of the human health benefits," Kurlansky said in a statement. "Based on that deception, EPA says that the benefits of MATS aren't worth the cost. Those benefits include the value of thousands of lives saved by MATS each year, hundreds of thousands of illnesses avoided each year, and avoided damage to the developing brain of the unborn."

Critics say the EPA's new method of calculating the costs and benefits of mercury pollution could set a precedent for the rollback of other air pollution standards, potentially leading to increased emissions of hazardous substances in future.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

"What the Trump EPA has done with this attack on the mercury standards is to unleash a very clear agenda to ignore the benefits of reducing all forms of air pollution," Joseph Goffman, a former senior counsel at EPA under the Obama administration, who now runs the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard, told The Allegheny Front radio show.

The EPA spokesperson said that the recent changes to MATS do not affect the existing environmental standards, telling Newsweek that no more mercury or any other hazardous air pollutant will be emitted into the air than before. "The new rule fixes underlying calculations so we have a more honest accounting of the costs and benefits affiliated with the targeted pollutant," the spokesperson said.


Toward the end of March, the EPA announced a temporary policy—known as the COVID-19 Implications for EPA's Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program—that critics say suspends the enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the pandemic. The rule—which has an indefinite end date—states that the EPA will not expect companies to comply with routine monitoring and reporting of pollution if it is not "reasonably practicable" and they can demonstrate that any violations are related to the pandemic.

According to the agency, mitigating factors during the crisis—such as potential worker shortages and travel/social distancing measures—could affect the ability of power plants, factories and other polluting facilities to carry out certain activities required under environmental regulations. As a result the EPA announced that "entities should make every effort to comply with their environmental compliance obligations." However, if compliance is not reasonably possible, companies should "act responsibly under the circumstances in order to minimize the effects and duration of any non-compliance caused by COVID-19."

This policy has been heavily criticized by environmental groups and leaders, who are concerned it leaves the responsibility of meeting legal requirements for water and air pollution with companies. The move comes in an era where enforcement actions have already fallen significantly under the Trump administration.

Resources Defense Council President Gina McCarthy said the temporary rule gave companies an "open license to pollute" the nation's air and water because the EPA "does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring," according to the policy.

"The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now. Instead it is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health," McCarthy said in a statement. "We can all appreciate the need for additional caution and flexibility in a time of crisis, but this brazen directive is an abdication of the EPA's responsibility to protect our health."

The EPA announced the policy after the American Petroleum Institute—the largest oil industry lobby group in the country—sent a letter to Wheeler requesting relaxation on compliance regulations.

The EPA spokesperson said the characterizations of the policy are "inaccurate," telling Newsweek: "EPA continues to enforce environmental laws and protect human health and the environment nationwide during these unprecedented times. The temporary guidance does not allow for any increases in emission.

"The comments they are making are baseless and show these groups either have no understanding of our regulatory actions, or they just want to make false claims and mislead the American public."