(Bloomberg) -- Trump administration appointees overruled concerns from their own technical experts in deciding not to impose tougher smog requirements on the Wisconsin county where Foxconn Technology Group planned a $10 billion manufacturing facility, newly released documents show.
Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency initially had recommended labeling Racine County as violating federal air quality standards for ozone in 2017 -- a designation that could have required Taiwan-based Foxconn to install expensive, state-of-the-art pollution controls at its flat-screen manufacturing plant.
But after appeals by Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker and at the apparent direction of then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency reversed course in 2018, ruling Racine was in compliance with the ground-level smog standard. The decision followed weeks of objections from career staff at the agency, who said they saw no technical basis to justify it, according to correspondence released under a public records request.
“I am still in disbelief,” one wrote, after citing new directions from Pruitt that clashed with the agency’s earlier proposal to label the region as being in “nonattainment.”
“I do not see a sound technical basis for the area we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin,” Jenny Liljegren, a scientist in EPA’s Air and Radiation Division, wrote in an April 11, 2018 email.
The documents, obtained by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin under the Freedom of Information Act, show technical experts repeatedly questioned Wisconsin officials’ assertions that the areas should be classified as satisfying federal ozone standards.
Janet McCabe, the EPA’s former acting administrator for air quality, said the Trump administration’s handling of the issue clashes with the agency’s “long tradition of very carefully, consistently applied interpretation by scientists to make recommendations to the administrator about where to draw these lines.
“To see apparent direction from political leadership that the technical staff is objecting to is disturbing,” McCabe said in a telephone interview.
In a legal brief filed with a federal appeals court in Washington earlier this month, the EPA asked for permission to reconsider its decision about ozone levels in Racine County and other parts of Wisconsin. While the EPA stressed in its filing it wasn’t admitting any errors, the new review could lead the agency to declare the area as violating 2015 ozone limits of 70 parts per billion.
Asked for comment, an EPA spokesman referred to the legal filing. Pruitt resigned last July. Walker was defeated for re-election in November.
Ground-level ozone, a chief component of smog, forms when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds released by burning fossil fuels react in the presence of sunlight. Even at low levels, ozone can worsen asthma, emphysema and other respiratory illnesses.
The backdrop for the EPA’s ozone deliberations was Foxconn’s proposed factory hub south of Milwaukee. The company agreed to build the facility and create as many as 13,000 local jobs after Trump helped broker a $4.5 billion package of government incentives he proclaimed “one of the great deals ever.”
A decision that the region was in nonattainment with the smog standards could trigger more stringent pollution control requirements for Foxconn and discourage future expansions.
Wisconsin leaders had pushed the EPA to designate Racine County as meeting ozone standards, or, failing that, to limit the so-called nonattainment areas to a narrow band around the shore of Lake Michigan.
State officials invoked the planned upcoming construction of the Foxconn campus in a February 2018 email, warning that if the area were deemed out of step with the smog standards, it could “result in businesses making the decision to pull back on the reins of growth.”
EPA officials openly considered the impact of its ozone decision on Foxconn’s manufacturing site as they weighed the final ruling. In a March 22 briefing memo for Bill Wehrum, the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, the staff noted that two approaches would exclude the Foxconn site, keeping it out of a nonattainment area.
But EPA staff also warned that there was “significant legal risk” if the agency sided with Wisconsin and labeled the area as satisfying smog rules, since data showed otherwise.
The caution proved prescient. After the EPA proclaimed Racine County was in compliance, a coalition of environmental groups, cities and counties challenged the designation in federal court.
The coalition includes the cities of Chicago and Sunland Park, New Mexico, as well as the environmental and public health groups Clean Wisconsin, Center for Biological Diversity, Familias Unidas del Chamizal and the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
In a statement last month, Foxconn said it remains committed to the project and would begin building the manufacturing facility this summer.
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