Environmental officials examine Clean Air Act from state perspective

Originally published in the Anderson Independent Mail and on shfwire.com for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

Air quality officials Thomas Easterly, left, of Indiana, Brad Poirez, of Southern California, and Robert King, of South Carolina, tell a House subcommittee Tuesday that states need more flexibility to enforce the Clean Air Act. Photo by Emily Siner

A South Carolina health official joined his counterparts from across the country this week and said that the Clean Air Act should be amended to give state and local governments more authority.

Robert King, deputy commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, was one of eight air quality officials who spoke Tuesday at a congressional forum hosted by Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The forum allowed members of Congress to hear about success stories and challenges of complying with the law.

King acknowledged that the Clean Air Act has been successful in improving air quality since it was enacted in 1963. But he pointed out a number of bureaucratic flaws with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We kind of have a love-hate relationship with the EPA sometimes,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the other local officials.

Under the law, state and local air quality officials write “state implementation plans” to codify the state’s goals and regulations. But often, he said, the EPA’s rules stifle the states when they try to address state-specific issues. The agency should work with states, not just as partners but also as “co-regulators,” he said.

“Convincing EPA that we shouldn’t have to do something just because another state has, or because they have a box that has to be checked, can be difficult and time-consuming,” he wrote in his official remarks.

King said the EPA could be more helpful in working with states to solve pollution problems that cross state lines. He said the agency has the resources to solve problems.

He cited one example when the state and the EPA were able to cooperate in negotiating an agreement with a coal-fired power plant to reduce emissions.

Brian Accardo, an air quality official from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, echoed King’s sentiments. The EPA should continue to hold states accountable, Accardo said, but states should be given more power to set their own goals.

“Each state has its own unique problems with its own unique solutions,” he said.

King asked for the EPA to give clearer, faster responses to questions about issuing permits. Delayed information from the EPA causes a delay in permits, he said.

He and several other participants voiced concern that the Clean Air Act targets one pollutant at a time – an inefficient standard, he argued – instead of using a comprehensive “multi-pollutant” approach, he said.

King’s fellow panelists came from Indiana, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Florida, southeast Michigan, southern California and the Navajo nation. Whitfield will host a second forum Thursday to hear from other parts of the country.