A trio of environmental groups said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed agencies from Indiana, other states and territories to go months or years without submitting federally-required plans for cleaning up air pollution. The groups are threatening legal action.
The EPA, in 2016, identified a portion of Huntington County as being in nonattainment of the 2010 Primary National Ambient Air Quality Standard for Sulfur Dioxide. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management had until Oct. 9, 2019 to submit a state implementation plan that would, among other things, inform the EPA about what actions the state would take to ensure Huntington County met those air quality requirements.
More than 8 months later, the EPA has not received that documentation from IDEM and other nonattainment areas in Missouri, Louisiana, Guam and Puerto Rico.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Health notified the EPA that they would sue unless the agency made an official determination that IDEM and other environmental agencies failed to submit state implementation plans for areas that did not meet federal standards for sulfur dioxide pollution.
Making that determination official would allow the EPA to step in and establish a federal plan to improve air quality under the Clean Air Act.
“The Trump EPA’s failure to ensure clean air in these areas is made worse by the fact that they include many large minority populations at greater risk from COVID-19,” said Robert Ukeiley, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “When it’s equitably enforced, the Clean Air Act saves lives and promotes environmental justice by making sure everyone has clean air to breathe, regardless of their zip code. But it only works when the EPA does its job.”
According to the EPA, about 35% of the 22,689 people living within 3 miles of the Isolatek International facility in Huntington live below the poverty level. More than 26% of households in that area make less than $25,000 a year.
The low-income households could be exposed to about 352,407 pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions a year.
Sulfur dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants and other industrial facilities, industrial processes like mineral extraction, and heavy equipment like trains and ships that burn fuel with a high sulfur content. Sulfur dioxide is also emitted naturally by natural sources like volcanoes.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide emissions harms both human health and the environment.
Short-term exposure can make breathing difficult and harm the respiratory system, putting people with asthma and other breathing problems at risk of aggravating their conditions.
Sulfur dioxide emissions also lead to the formation of other sulfur oxides, which can contribute to particulate matter. Researchers have found that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the U.S.
The EPA said that sulfur dioxide can also damage foliage and decrease growth in trees and plants. Along with other sulfur oxides, sulfur dioxide can also contribute to acid rain, which increases the acidity of ecosystems in which plants and animals depend.
The gas is one of six common air pollutants known as “criteria air pollutants” that the EPA is required to regulate through the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The NAAQS Standards for sulfur dioxide have been updated four times since 1971.
In 2016, EPA identified a part of Huntington County that was home to U.S. Mineral Products Co.’s Isolatek International manufacturing and distribution facility as one of Indiana’s top sulfur dioxide emitters.
The EPA said that although the facility reported emitting less than the threshold 2,000 tons per year of sulfur dioxide in 2014, the agency was concerned about air quality in the area. The agency said emissions reported that year were much lower than the facility had reported in other years, and that the facility “has significant potential for causing violations of the SO2 standard.”
“Although this source emits less than 2,000 tpy, we have sufficient concerns about air quality in the vicinity of this source to warrant listing this source as subject to the air quality characterization requirements of the [sulfur dioxide Data Requirements Rule],” the agency wrote to Keith Baugues, assistant commissioner for IDEM’s Office of Air Quality.
IDEM said it “strongly objected” to the finding and argued that the facility’s significantly lower emissions reported in 2014 should be considered its normal production and emissions due to “current economic factors.” IDEM said because the facility produced less than 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions a year it should not be subject to increased air quality monitoring and reporting.
“Because USM’s actual SO2 emissions and total potential-to-emit SO2 emissions remain well below the 2,000-ton applicability threshold, it is unreasonable to place it among the sources that should be prioritized to determine if it contributes to violations of the NAAQS,” IDEM wrote in a rebuttal to the EPA’s recommendation.
Ultimately, the EPA administrator informed Gov. Eric Holcomb and IDEM that the facility would be added to the state’s nonattainment list, to which it was officially added Jan. 2018.
The state of Indiana was given until Oct. 9, 2019 to submit a state implementation plan, which would detail how the state will implement, maintain and enforce the 2010 NAAQS for Sulfur Dioxide.
The state of Indiana petitioned the EPA to remove Huntington County from the nonattainment list, and has not included data from Huntington in its correspondence with the EPA.
In a 2019 assessment submitted to the EPA, IDEM omitted NAAQS data from the Huntington facility, citing the pending decision on the petition.
“Indiana has filed a petition for reconsideration and request for agency stay pending reconsideration of the final rule designating Huntington Township, Huntington County as nonattainment,” the statement reads.
A May draft of the 2020 assessment made public by IDEM contains the same statement and does not contain data from Huntington County.
According to an EPA site that tracks the status of state implementation plans, IDEM has not submitted any of the required elements for the Huntington County nonattainment area.
The groups threatening to sue the EPA said the agency has allowed states and territories to skirt the law. Missouri’s environmental agency has gone five years without submitting a state implementation plan for its Jackson County nonattainment area.
“The law requires the EPA to take concrete steps to improve the health of kids and families in some of our most vulnerable communities, and the Trump administration is turning a blind eye,” said Sierra Club attorney Zachary Fabish.
The EPA has until late July to address the plan omissions or face a lawsuit.
IDEM has not yet responded to questions about whether it intends to submit a state implementation plan.
IDEM responded to the Indiana Environmental Reporter's questions with the following statement:
"The State of Indiana has legally challenged this designation and also filed an administrative appeal to the U.S. EPA. Indiana's position is outlined within documents that can be found at https://www.in.gov/idem/airquality/2432.htm. IDEM is awaiting a ruling to determine what actions, if any, will be necessary to address this situation. There is no monitoring data to suggest an air quality problem exists at this time. IDEM will conduct modeling if future corrective action is necessary."