‘Upwind’ Midwest States Are a Pollution Nightmare, Easterners Say

Vadim Petrakov/

The debate over federal pollution standards has occurred mostly along party lines. But for some East Coast Democrats, the real enemy might be geography, not partisanship.

At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Wednesday, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) called on Midwestern states to be better neighbors. He criticized Midwestern states for constructing “500-foot smokestacks” that emit pollutants that travel hundreds of miles to downwind states on the East Coast.

The pollution makes it harder for downwind states to comply with standards on ground-level ozone and other pollutants, and makes regulation on boundary-crossing pollutants a federal issue, he said. “I could have shut down the state of Delaware’s economy when I was governor, literally shut it down,” Carper said. “And we still would not have been in compliance in any number of air quality metrics. That’s just not fair.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) piled on, saying Midwestern states “have wangled it so they can export their pollution to my state and not have to pay for it and not have to clean it up.”

The hearing was intended to focus on “cooperative federalism,” i.e., the way states and the federal government interact when it comes to environmental regulations. It definitely had partisan overtones. It featured three officials from Republican states who complained that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a heavy-handed approach to emission standards rather than working cooperatively with states. Two officials from blue states then spoke positively about the EPA.

But Carper and other Democrats focused on the federal government’s role in curbing emissions, noting that air pollutants are inherently an interstate issue.

Despite complying with EPA regulations on emissions, Delaware suffers from poor air quality. More than 90 percent of ozone concentrations there are from other states, Ali Mirzakhalili, the state’s Division of Air Quality director, told the committee.

In some cases, emission controls have been installed on power plants in other states but have not been activated, he added. “We suffer the consequences of those emissions if they are unabated,” Mirzakhalili said.

The EPA proposed a rule in October lowering the limit for ground-level ozone from 75 to 70 parts per billion. An upwind and downwind medley of nine Republican states sued over the rule, saying the stricter limit is unattainable.

In response to Mirzakhalili’s testimony, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh said her state works with its neighbors to address cross-state emissions, indicating the federal government doesn’t have much of a role.

“Our states work together when we have a situation like that,” Keogh said. “We have worked with our neighboring states.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) audibly laughed at Keogh’s assertion. “So your position is that your state can tell another state what to do? And you’re criticizing the EPA and saying one state’s going to tell another state what to do. It’s not realistic at all. And that’s the reason we passed federal legislation, under [President] Nixon, I might say.”

Boxer empathized with downwind states even though several opponents of the EPA’s latest ground-level ozone standard have called her home state a culprit of spreading pollution. Some western states, including Utah and Arizona, have argued that much of their ozone blows in from Los Angeles and San Francisco. And a Democratic state lawmaker in Colorado said the tougher standard is “setting us up to fail.”

EPA data shows that the Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — has more work to do than other regions on ozone levels. The average level in those four states in 2014 was 69 parts per billion, just below the new proposed limit. From 2011 to 2013, it wavered between 72 and 75 parts per billion. In comparison, the average level in the Midwest — West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri — was about 65 parts per billion in 2013 and 2014. And the average in the upper Midwest — Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, was 66 parts per billion in 2013 and 2014.

Wind patterns are at least partly responsible for the regional disparity in ozone levels. According to the EPA, none of the lower Midwestern states have a significant downwind link to any other states, instead sending out pollutants, mostly to the east. In comparison, Maryland has downwind links to 10 states, and Connecticut has downwind links to 12 states.

Morning Consult