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Environmental Groups Challenge EPA In Court Over Ozone Rule


The Trump administration has made no secret of its intent to roll back as many federal regulations as it can. President Trump says he wants to eliminate two existing regulations for each new one put in place. It takes time to repeal regulations outright, so the administration is taking another tack by attempting to delay rules from taking effect. NPR's Brian Naylor explains.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Eneshal Miller has a problem with the air she breathes. The 43-year-old hairstylist moved with her son from Washington, D.C., to a Maryland suburb partly to get away from Washington's smog.

ENESHAL MILLER: I do have issues with the air outside that I'm breathing. I may suffer from things like headaches. Sometimes I'm just not able to come outside based on the temperatures, based on the smog. A lot of times my son, who is now 18, he has asthma.

NAYLOR: Miller and her son's health troubles from breathing dirty air are not unusual. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that just a small reduction in the level of ozone in the air, a major component of smog, would save some 1,900 lives a year. In 2015, the Obama Administration approved a regulation that lowered the amount of allowable ozone from 75 to 70 parts per billion, itself a compromise. But in June, Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, said states needed more time to meet the lower standard, and so he extended the deadline for a year. In response, environmental groups and, yesterday, 16 states filed lawsuits challenging Pruitt's action as unlawful. John Walke is an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

JOHN WALKE: Mr. Pruitt is just flat-out violating the law by obstructing legally required reductions in smog pollution. And that is where the courts should and we believe will intervene to overturn his unlawful steps.

NAYLOR: This isn't the first time Pruitt has sought to delay implementation of new environmental regulations. In his previous job as attorney general of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA with other states in an effort to block regulations. Since becoming EPA administrator, he tried to stop new rules on methane emissions from taking effect but lost a court challenge. The Trump administration's battle against regulation is not limited to the environment. Across the government, administration officials seek to delay or roll back dozens of rules and regulations on everything from food safety to civil rights protections to clean air and water. Georgetown University law professor William Buzbee says the White House can do that up to a point.

WILLIAM BUZBEE: Basically a president has tremendous power. And agencies can drag their feet.

NAYLOR: But Buzbee adds the administration is on thin legal ice.

BUZBEE: For an agency and the agency's lawyers to effectively undo a regulation by just saying they're going to put it on hold is by most standards an illegal act.

NAYLOR: The petroleum industry stands to be most affected by lower ozone standards and has long fought them. Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute argues the air is getting cleaner and the industry is still trying to meet an earlier standard.

HOWARD FELDMAN: So we think it's best for people to work on meeting the 2008 standard first and then look at what needs to be done further, if anything.

NAYLOR: He says ozone levels have gone down by a third since 1990. Opponents of the tougher ozone standard have also turned to Congress. The House last month approved a bill to delay the stricter rules for eight years. A similar measure is working its way through the Senate. Eneshal Miller, though, is worried about backtracking.

MILLER: I hope we don't go back to just not caring anymore and saying, no, we don't want clean air. You know, I hope that doesn't happen.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.


NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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