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(Bloomberg) -- California’s top clean-air official fired back at Trump administration charges that the state hasn’t done enough to fight pollution within its borders, saying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should “do its job.”
Last month, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler warned California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols that federal highway funds for the state might be withheld over a backlog of incomplete state plans to fight air pollution.
Nichols responded in a letter on Wednesday, saying most of those plans await EPA action to be implemented and cited EPA staff shortages, competing priorities and unclear guidelines from Washington as the result of the “multi-year delays” in finalizing the plans.
“None of your agency’s administrative delays have had any impact whatsoever on public health because California has moved ahead with implementation in the absence of U.S. EPA action,” Nichols wrote. “Under these circumstances, your sanctions threat is at best unfounded.”
In a statement Thursday, the EPA reiterated some of the assertions made earlier by Wheeler, including that most of California’s roughly 130 backlogged plans “are inactive and appear to have fundamental issues related to approvability.”
Nichols disputed this claim, saying the EPA has the information it needs to act on nearly two-thirds of the backlogged plans and fewer than 20 require additional action by CARB or local authorities.
Wheeler had asked Nichols to say by Oct. 10 whether the state planned to withdraw the roughly 130 backlogged plans to curb pollution. Nichols said the state would withdraw those for which “EPA action is no longer needed.”
In its statement, the EPA said the Trump administration “will act to protect public health and the environment” and that the EPA “stands ready to work with California to meet the administration’s goal of clean healthy air for all Americans.”
The back-and-forth is part of an wide-ranging feud between the Trump administration and California officials that has recently escalated over environmental policy. The EPA last month moved to revoke California’s power to curb greenhouse gas emissions from autos, and slammed the state for pollution linked to the state’s homeless population.
The Trump administration’s environmental salvos targeting the most populous state and Democratic party stronghold prompted an environmental group and hundreds of former EPA officials to urge House lawmakers to investigate whether the actions amounted to a politically-motivated abuse of the EPA’s authority.
“EPA’s credibility depends on its commitment to use its authority to protect public health and our environment in an objective, even-handed manner, rather than as a blunt instrument of political power,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, wrote in letter to U.S. Representatives Elijah Cummings and Jim Jordan, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Oversight Committee.
California has long been known as a liberal bastion, politically and culturally, and President Donald Trump often assails policies of the state and its cities, and even did so on his way back to Washington from a visit last month.
Wheeler’s letter chided California for its air quality, calling it the nation’s worst and saying the state “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act.”
Nichols took exception, calling his charge “simply false.”
“It is imperative that U.S. EPA move quickly to do its job and reduce pollution from the sources it has the responsibility to regulate,” Nichols said.
(Adds EPA and environmental group comment starting in the fifth paragraph)
--With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
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