Agency Experts “Aghast” as EPA Adjusts Air Quality Models

Published Apr 8, 2004

In April 2004, air quality modelers from 9 of the 10 regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lodged an internal protest against a Bush administration policy that relaxes the way pollution can be measured over national parks and wilderness areas.  The new policy allows states to choose which year to set as a baseline for measuring increases in air pollution. The result of a compromise with North Dakota officials,¹ whose state had previously been out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, the new method may set a dangerous precedent for other states in allowing higher levels of air pollution.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 deem national parks and wilderness areas of a certain size to be "Class I" areas, and permit only small increases in air pollution over those areas.² Since 1999, the EPA has maintained that air quality in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park had increased since 1977, the baseline year, by an amount that violated these Class I standards.³ This lack of compliance proved to be a stumbling block for industry plans to build new coal-fired power plants near the park. Mary Mitchell of the Dakota Resource Council, detailed industry efforts to bypass the EPA regulations, stating "We have evidence that after the original pollution reports were made in 1999, the industry and the state made 14 separate efforts to redo the reports with different 'modeling scenarios' to make it look like they were complying."4

However, with the new compromise policy, North Dakota can alter "the criteria within its pollution modeling software that dictate what baseline years are used and how the pollution data is averaged," effectively bringing the state into compliance without actually reducing air pollution.5

The changes were greeted with dismay by the very scientists charged with monitoring and analyzing air quality and prompted what one air quality advocate called "an unprecedented rebellion."6 "I was aghast," said an anonymous air quality modeler, quoted about the new policy in the Los Angeles Times. The Times reported that modelers were "offended by what they termed the administration's efforts to use science to mask a policy change that would hurt air quality."7 In a memo sent to division directors Bill Harnett and Peter Tsirigotis, the air quality modelers warned against using procedures that would "artificially inflate" the baseline and thereby sanction increased future air pollution levels. They described the changes as violating "long-standing [principles] in federal regulations and in EPA guidance and practice" which have "served to protect and enhance air quality."8 

The scientists were also motivated by concerns that the North Dakota case would provide a precedent for other regions to similarly redefine standards. Scott Bohning, an EPA environmental engineer in San Francisco and one of the regional EPA workers who helped draft the letter of protest, was quoted as saying "I think it really sunk in with me and other people that this really could change national policy. This stuff should not really be going on."9 And indeed, an anonymous EPA official confirmed that the other states in the same region—Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—are "lining up" to follow North Dakota's lead.10

Bill Harnett responded to the scientists' memo claiming that "it isn't about allowing more pollution. What it's about is doing the analysis in a manner consistent with our rules and with what Congress intended."11 However, the new rule changes do appear to allow more air pollution in North Dakota's national parks and new power plants to be built without requiring costly pollution controls. North Dakota had the three most polluting coal plants in the U.S., according to a 2006 ranking by the Environmental Integrity Project.12 

One EPA modeler summarized objections to the new policy thusly: "If you rearrange your science to fit your goal, that's not really science."13 

1. EPA - North Dakota Memorandum of Understanding, accessed December 6, 2006.
2. Clean Air Act, available online at.
3. Amanda Griscom, "How to Succeed Without Really Trying: North Dakota 'reduces' pollution by measuring it differently," Grist, 19 February 2004, accessed 21 November 2006.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Curt Woodward, "EPA experts object to air pollution deal" Associated Press writer, in the Bismarck Tribune, 30 April 2004, accessed 20 November 2006.
7. Elizabeth Shogren, "Air Quality Experts Decry New Bush Policy," Los Angeles Times, 29 April 2004, accessed 2 October 2006.
8. Regional Modelers Memo, April 21, 2004, accessed December 6, 2006.
9. Woodward.
10. Griscom.
11. Shogren.
12. Environmental Integrity Project, "50 Dirtiest Power Plants," press release July 27 2006, accessed  20 November, 2006.
13. Shogren.