Science & Environment
12:19 pm
Sat January 18, 2014

NC Sues EPA Over Air Quality Standards

The state of North Carolina is suing the EPA. State environmental regulators are arguing that federal air quality standards are too stringent and should be loosened.


The EPA regulates particle pollution, which can be chemicals, acids, metals, soil and dust particles. Cars, refineries, factories and power plants all emit particulate matter.
Credit NCDOT

The argument is over emissions the size of a smoke particle or even smaller, particulate matter that is easy to breathe.

“It is far and away the most deadly and harmful form of air pollution that we regulate in this country,” says John Walke, Clean Air Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cars, refineries, factories, and power plants all emit this particulate matter, with coal plants being the biggest contributor, Walke says. The EPA sets how much can be in the air, and then measures it in each state against how much was in the air in a certain year—called the baseline. Until a few years ago, that baseline was 1975. In 2010, though, the EPA reset the date. Since 2010 air was much cleaner than 1975 air, states have less room to emit. Too little, according to North Carolina’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources, which is in charge of state air quality. So, the department is suing.

The department says the tighter air standard gives North Carolina less leeway, which means the state can bring in less companies that emit this pollution, and that will hurt economic development.

The legal argument is a bit different. It springs from another case, which the Natural Resources Defense Council won against the EPA last year. To summarize, the NRDC argued the EPA had to tighten the regulation of this particulate matter, but North Carolina argues the decision also locked the agency out of changing the baseline date.

John Walke argued the NRDC case, and he calls that argument “preposterous.”

“It takes a lot of cheeky nerve for the McCrory administration to argue that a lawsuit we won to strengthen clean air safeguards can be bootstrapped for dirtier air quality protections,” Walke says.

Walke says North Carolina is trying to get lax treatment by pretending that it is reasonable to compare today’s air quality to 1975. He says EPA should use the 2010 date. Other environmental organizations share that view. Clean Air Carolina has opposed the suit, and the Sierra Club has asked to join the EPA’s side of the suit.

Filings in the case are due next month.