California Forced to Withdraw Outdated Pollution Plans to Clear EPA Backlog

Clog Alert: Obama admin left massive backlog

California smog
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January 13, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency has reduced a backlog of proposed air quality regulations after California withdrew dozens of outdated plans under pressure.

The Obama-era EPA routinely failed to process plans to address air pollution submitted by states within the 18-month deadline, leaving more than 370 plans pending EPA approval in January 2019. The delay threatened the health of millions of Americans living in areas with poor air quality. Since then, the Trump administration has aggressively chipped away at this backlog, asking states to withdraw inadequate, unnecessary, or outdated plans that don't meet EPA standards.

California submitted roughly a third of the plans stuck in bureaucratic limbo—the most of any state—prompting the agency to demand in September that it withdraw many of its "backlogged and unapprovable" plans. The agency threatened to cut off funding for federal highways along with a litany of other sanctions for any state that did not comply. The strategy has been effective. California has withdrawn 43 noncompliant air pollution plans, some dating back more than a decade.

The EPA has blamed California for the bureaucratic backlog—just 11 withdrawn plans originated in the other 49 states.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has faulted the agency for the backlog. CARB said in a response letter that the agency's chronic "staff shortages, competing administrative priorities, and a lack of clear guidelines" led to delays. Despite the blame-shifting, the EPA and the state government had successfully negotiated the withdrawal of 43 noncompliant plans by end of 2019, according to the agency.

"The effort to resolve U.S. EPA's backlog has been an ongoing process—a process that's been ongoing even before U.S. EPA's Sept. 24, 2019, letter—and is continuing," CARB said in a statement. "It has always been the intent that we would continue to work collaboratively to address any U.S. EPA administrative backlog."

Voluntary withdrawal allows the state to avoid federal sanctions that could come into effect if the agency rejects a plan.

The White House is also moving to streamline the environmental review process of other federal agencies. President Donald Trump announced a plan on Thursday to speed up infrastructure projects by setting a two-year time limit for federal agencies to complete environmental reviews, a process that now has the potential to drag on for more than a decade.

"America is a nation of builders. It took four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge, five years to build the Hoover Dam, and less than one year—can you believe that?—to build the Empire State Building," Trump said. "Yet today, it can take more than 10 years just to get a permit to build a simple road."

California's environmental plans languished in the EPA backlog for eight years on average, according to the state. Two plans submitted by Lassen County, California, were originally written in 1987. The EPA acknowledged that it has not adequately supported rural county governments through the approval process in the past.

"The local agency has not had sufficient staffing to either withdraw or replace their permit rule submittals, and EPA has not had sufficient resources to provide the higher level of support needed for them to take that action," agency adviser Michael Abboud said.

The EPA has successfully pushed other states to withdraw noncompliant plans as well. Despite receiving 369 plans in 2019, the agency was able to reduce the total backlog by roughly 10 percent to 333 unprocessed plans. Federal regulators are now working with state governments to replace withdrawn plans with proposals that can meet current requirements.

"The next step would be to develop replacement [plans] that protect human health and the environment," Michael Stoker, a regional EPA administrator in charge of Californian air quality, said in a December letter to California.