Wheeler in Wisconsin: Putting a Green Veneer on the Actions of Trump’s EPA

By redrawing a line on a map to exclude a monitor with higher pollution readings, the administration has given the appearance of reducing pollution in Sheboygan.

Jun 18, 2020
Andrew Wheeler. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Andrew Wheeler has visited three key swing states in the last few weeks to tout his agency's accomplishments. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Trump administration declared a victory over air pollution in Sheboygan, Wisconsin this week—a timely win given recent polls showing that voters view environmental protection to be President Trump's greatest vulnerability

It is not clear if Trump's weak standing in Wisconsin polls will be helped by the announcement that a portion of Sheboygan County, a chronic smog hot spot, has met federal air quality standards. But the declaration, made Tuesday by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler in the last of three tours of swing states so far this month, reveals much about the administration's strategy for putting a green veneer on its record of relentlessly rolling back environmental protections.

By redrawing a line on a map to exclude a shoreline air monitor with high pollution readings—a move that was urged by Wisconsin Republican state leaders—Wheeler was able to announce that the newly created "inland" Sheboygan air monitoring zone met the federal ozone standard.

Environmental and health advocates, EPA's own scientists and the findings of a major regional study last year of ozone patterns along Lake Michigan have raised doubts on whether the smog has truly lifted in Sheboygan. The city ranked among the nation's 25 most polluted metropolitan areas for ozone in the American Lung Association's 2020 State of the Air report.

And a federal court is weighing whether the Trump administration violated the law in its creative redesign of the nation's ozone monitoring areas. But for now, the "attainment" designation allows Wisconsin to roll back costly air pollution equipment requirements for businesses and end emissions testing for vehicles in the region. And it gives the Trump administration a much-needed environmental success story.

"Under President Trump, Americans are breathing the cleanest air ever recorded," Wheeler said in making the announcement. "By working hand-in-hand with states to help them meet air quality standards, the Trump EPA is helping areas like Sheboygan... breathe easier and improve local economies."

Ann Weeks, a lawyer for the Clean Air Task Force, represents Clean Wisconsin in a case by a coalition of environmental groups and states that is challenging the Trump administration's ozone designations in federal court. She said that Wheeler's assertion "would be amusing if it were not so serious."

How to Split an Ozone Zone

"In fact, the Wheeler EPA has done everything in its power to remove clean air protections, not just for people living in Wisconsin, but all across the country," Weeks said in an email.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Clean Wisconsin obtained internal EPA correspondence last year that showed agency scientists had objected to decisions the Trump administration was making about ozone designations in the state as lacking "a sound technical basis." One EPA ozone chemist said she was "in disbelief" over the administration's handling of the smog issue in Wisconsin.

Wheeler Has Already Made Stops in Three Swing States

Although as a federal official, Wheeler is barred by law from making an explicit pitch for Trump's reelection, he is allowed to tout his agency's accomplishments. And since the start of June, Wheeler has been trumpeting the Trump EPA's record in trips to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three swing states that happened to be key in 2016 to Trump's narrow electoral victory.

Polls indicate that Trump's environmental image could use some rehab. A recent Research Co. poll shows Trump 20 percentage points behind former Vice President Joe Biden in voters' perception of his leadership ability on the environment—a greater deficit than on any other issue, including health care and race relations. 

The results echo those of a Morning Consult poll last month. "The gap between the two candidates on the environment dwarfs that of all other issues, including those that are likely top of voters' minds this election cycle," said the Morning Consult's analysis.

The dim view of Trump as an environmental leader is not surprising, given that his administration has proposed or completed the rollback of more than 100 environmental regulations, with that effort accelerating in recent weeks. 

But Wheeler has sought to burnish Trump's environmental image by taking credit for modest pollution reductions that were not the administration's doing, and by moving the goalposts for environmental achievement. The redesignation of Sheboygan's status in the federal ozone program is a case study in that effort.

Because Sheboygan is located on the coast of Lake Michigan, where air inversion patterns produce smog on hot summer days, the city has long been in violation of federal ozone standards. But last year, the Trump EPA split Sheboygan into two separate zones for the purposes of determining its compliance with the federal air quality standard for ozone. 

In redrawing the Sheboygan map, Wheeler was acting on a request that had been made the previous year by Wisconsin's former Republican governor, Scott Walker, before he was voted out of office. Walker had long insisted that his state's ozone problems were due to pollution that blew into the region from out of state and settled along Lake Michigan. 

In 2014, Walker's administration had placed a new Sheboygan air monitor further inland from the lake—-a monitor that typically shows lower readings than the ozone recorded by the air monitor on the shoreline.

That monitor, showing an average reading of 66 parts per billion for ozone over the past three years, allowed Wheeler to give inland Sheboygan a passing grade on the federal air quality standard for ozone (up to 70 parts per billion.) In contrast, the average reading from the monitor on the shoreline of Sheboygan over the last three years has been 75.3 parts per billion.

Wheeler said the split "provided Wisconsin with additional flexibility in meeting Clean Air Act requirements and acknowledged differences in the factors influencing air quality in the separate areas."

The move won praise from local politicians who appeared with Wheeler at a news conference at Sheboygan's South Pier. "Victory at last!" said U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.). "I applaud the Trump Administration and the EPA for recognizing the error of the previous administration's interpretation of the Clean Air Act's national ambient air quality standards and thank Administrator Wheeler for coming to Sheboygan to announce these long-overdue changes."

Scott Manley, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association, called the decision "incredibly good news for businesses and workers in Sheboygan County, and we thank President Trump and EPA Administrator Wheeler for providing the relief that the community has earned."

Local environmental activists don't see it the same way. "It's insulting," said Rebecca Clarke, a co-founder of the citizen group Sheboygan Ozone Reduction Alliance (SORA). "Are we going to just keep moving monitors until we get the readings we want?"

Reba Duquesnoy, another co-founder of the citizen group, said she got involved in the fight for cleaner air because of the special needs of her 6-year-old daughter, whose ability to get exercise outdoors is hampered by frequent poor air quality. Ozone levels surpassed the 70 ppb standard three times in Sheboygan since April 1, Duquesnoy noted.  

And last year, the preliminary results of a study by the Lake Michigan Air Directors' Consortium, including scientists from National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the EPA and local universities, concluded that the authorities are systematically underestimating ozone levels in the region.

The citizens' group had wanted Wheeler to wait on making the decision about Sheboygan's attainment status until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals made a ruling—now pending—on whether an array of Trump administration decisions nationwide on ozone designations had been arbitrary and capricious. As Wheeler himself noted, Sheboygan was just one of 23 redesignations of ozone attainment areas in the Great Lakes Region alone.

In the ozone litigation, the Trump administration has maintained that ozone is an interstate pollution problem and it is unfair to place the burden on local sources to reduce emissions. But Weeks, the lawyer for Clean Wisconsin, notes that at the same time, in an entirely different case, the administration was arguing that it did not need to do anything further to address the transport of ozone air pollution across state boundaries. A federal court ruled against the EPA in that case last year, and ordered the agency to rewrite its rules addressing cross-state ozone pollution.

"Rather than actively doing things that would support and promote and result in cleaner air in Wisconsin, in fact the Administration has played both sides against the middle in an effort to do nothing at all," said Weeks.

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