EPA Ignores Scientists Who Say Wisconsin’s Air Is Dirty and Could Make People Sick

Published Jun 14, 2019

The EPA is ignoring scientists who say that data does not support its decision that several southeastern Wisconsin counties had not violated air pollution standards.

What happened: Political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed the objections raised by EPA scientists over the decision that several southeastern Wisconsin counties had not violated air pollution standards for ground-level ozone. The scientists said that the data did not support this decision. EPA officials appear to have been influenced by the governor of Wisconsin and other state officials, who asked the EPA not to rule the area in non-compliance with ozone because the company Foxconn was planning to build a major manufacturing plant in the area. If the area had been found to be non-compliant by the EPA, Foxconn would have likely been required to install expensive, high-quality air monitoring equipment.

Why it matters: The EPA is ignoring its own scientists who say that the data does not support this decision and that this may lead to more people getting sick from breathing in dirty air. In the US, the Clean Air Act requires that the EPA enforce limits for ozone across the country such that the public and the environment are adequately protected. The air pollutant, ground-level ozone, is one of the leading contributors to smog and even at low levels it can worsen asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory illnesses. By ignoring its scientists and failing to enforce the ozone limits, the EPA has unfairly subjected the residents of southeastern Wisconsin to air that will increase coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory problems in the community.

Newly released emails show that EPA scientists raised strong science-based objections to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s 2018 decision to exempt the majority of southeastern Wisconsin from federal limits on ozone, objections that were subsequentially ignored. The EPA scientists were adamant that the data did not support this decision, and just a year earlier in 2017, the agency had agreed, flagging several southeastern Wisconsin counties as having violated air quality standards for ozone. Ground-level ozone is a smog-producing air pollutant that can cause shortness of breath, inflame and damage the airways, and increase the frequency of asthma attacks.

One of the non-compliant counties were Racine county, where Foxconn was planning to build a large manufacturing plant. If the EPA had continued to find the area non-compliant, Foxconn would probably have needed to install expensive, high quality air pollution controls at their manufacturing plant. However, appeals by Wisconsin’s then-Governor Scott Walker and intervention by then-Administrator Scott Pruitt led the EPA in 2018 to reverse course.

According to the emails released under the Freedom of Information Act, senior EPA scientists voiced concerns that top political officials at the EPA were demanding that the scientists reach conclusions that supported Pruitt’s decision, despite the fact that the data did not support this. Jennifer Liljegren, a physical scientist at the EPA who was involved in the decision-making process, wrote to colleagues in April 2018, “I do not see a sound technical basis for the areas we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin. I will need the wordsmithing of the legal and policy experts if we are really going to do this — I am still in disbelief.” In reply, Lars Perlmutt, an EPA health scientist, said, “I have a background in air pollution health effects and more specifically on acute exposures, so for me personally, this is hard to digest and support.”

A few days later, the same team of scientists and staff members were concerned about “intentional omissions” in the new analyses that showed fewer Wisconsin counties that were in violation of the federal ozone standard. “Taking snippets of information out of context and not telling the whole story is inappropriate, misleading to the public and dilutes the clarity of the technical information,” Jennifer Liljegren wrote.

This not a normal practice at the EPA. Prior to the Trump administration, the agency had a “long tradition” of relying on the “very carefully, consistently applied interpretation by scientists” in order “to make recommendations to the administrator about where to draw these lines,” according to Janet McCabe, the EPA’s former acting administrator for air quality. McCabe further added, “To see apparent direction from political leadership that the technical staff is objecting to is disturbing.”

In their attempts to sway the EPA, state officials specifically brought up the planned construction of the Foxconn building in a February 2018 email, saying that a non-compliant ozone finding could “result in businesses making the decision to pull back on the reins of growth.” Foxconn’s decision to build the factory was brokered in part by President Trump, who declared that this was “one of the great deals ever.” Since the non-compliance finding could have initiated more stringent pollution control requirements for Foxconn (potentially discouraging further expansion in the region), Wisconsin state officials pushed the EPA to designate Racine County as having met the ozone standard. Barring that, state officials had a second plan: to limit the non-compliant areas to a narrow band around the shore of Lake Michigan (this is what Scott Pruitt eventually decided to do).

Then-Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had worked hard to encourage the building of a new Foxconn factory in a portion of the state that the EPA had flagged in 2017 as having exceeded federal limits on ground-level ozone. This occurred at the same time that Scott Walker was campaigning for a third term, with the Foxconn deal heavily factoring into the early parts of his reelection campaign plans. Walker promised Foxconn a subsidy of $4.1 billion, the largest in Wisconsin’s history and the largest government handout to a foreign company ever given in the United States. Walker once said that Foxconn’s chairman was “one of the most remarkable business leaders in the world.” In addition to the ozone exemption, Walker waived Foxconn from adhering to a number of environmental rules without first conducting an environmental impact statement, including allowing the company to discharge materials into wetlands and allowing the company to reroute streams during construction. According to the City of Milwaukee’s Legislative Reference Bureau, the Foxconn plant will have the ability to draw huge amounts of water from Lake Michigan (up to 7 million gallons per day) and that, in its permit, the company plans to release hundreds of tons of air pollutants every year, including carbon monoxide, particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds.

This is a crystal-clear case of science being sidelined in favor of political interests. There appears to have been little to no doubt as to the robustness of the data that supported a non-compliance conclusion – even in May 2019, the EPA stressed in a legal brief that the agency was not admitting that any errors had occurred in the previous analysis. And yet, for weeks, the voices of EPA scientists, pleading for the agency heads to follow the science, were not only ignored by political officials, but those officials prodded the scientists to carry out scientifically inaccurate methods in order to justify a politically friendly conclusion. As McCabe, the former EPA’s air quality chief under Obama, put it, “These are supposed to be science-based decisions under the Clean Air Act, and yet you see career staff struggling to explain unexplainable decisions.” Politics should never be allowed to decide who will breath clean air and who will not.