Another Break for Foxconn? EPA Office Led by Gov. Walker’s Former Aide to Decide Smog Pollution Rules
By Michael Hawthorne
Armed with years of air quality testing and other evidence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tentatively concluded late last year that most of southeast Wisconsin needs to take more aggressive action to reduce lung-damaging smog.
The decision infuriated Gov. Scott Walker, a former Republican presidential candidate who had wooed Foxconn Technology Group to Racine County a few months earlier with $3 billion in financial incentives, promises to relax state environmental laws and access to Lake Michigan water for a sprawling new electronics factory, just north of the Illinois border in an area with some of the state’s dirtiest air.
Walker and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources blame Chicago for making the air unhealthy to breathe in parts of the state. “Wisconsin is not the issue,” a Walker spokeswoman said. But an EPA analysis of industrial pollution, traffic patterns and weather shows Wisconsin is at least partially responsible for its own smog problems.
Within the next three months, the same regional EPA office that prepared the Wisconsin analysis will make a final decision about how much — or how little — Foxconn and other companies must do to curb smog-forming pollution. Only now the Chicago-based office is led by Cathy Stepp, a former top aide to Walker who spent the past three years urging EPA officials to exempt Wisconsin from the smog regulations.
Walker once said he chose Stepp to lead the Natural Resources Department because she has a “chamber of commerce mentality.” During her six-year tenure at the state agency, Stepp rolled back enforcement of environmental laws, cut funding for scientific research and scrubbed references to human-caused climate change from the department’s website.
She also has been an enthusiastic backer of Walker’s Foxconn incentives, calling the planned liquid crystal display factory a gift to an area she represented as a Republican state lawmaker during the mid-2000s.
Asked by the Tribune if she has a conflict of interest in her new job at the EPA, a spokesman emailed a one-sentence statement announcing that Stepp will recuse herself from any involvement in the Wisconsin smog case after consulting with the agency’s ethics office. Her staff declined to make Stepp available for an interview.
Former top EPA officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations welcomed Stepp’s decision. But they still are concerned that the Trump administration will undermine the health-based smog standards as part of a broader attack on clean air and water regulations, noting that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt already has attempted to delay the regulations from taking effect.
“You might be able to play politics when you represent a state, but when you are at EPA your mission is to protect public health,” said Mary Gade, who played a major role in earlier initiatives to improve Midwest air quality as head of the Chicago EPA office under Bush and the Illinois EPA director in former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration.
Janet McCabe, who helped develop the new smog standards as the U.S. EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation in the Obama administration, said the smog regulations have withstood several court challenges and are grounded in well-documented medical research.
“I don’t know how anyone can justify exempting areas with dirty air,” said McCabe, now an Indiana University law professor and senior fellow at the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. “These areas already have too much pollution, so the idea is you shouldn’t be adding new sources unless you ensure there is an overall decrease in pollution that is protective of public health.”
Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, is formed by a reaction between sunlight and pollution from car tailpipes, power plants and factories, fumes from volatile solvents and gasoline vapors. Breathing even low levels can inflame the lining of the lungs and trigger asthma attacks; long-term exposure can cause heart disease and shave years off of lives.
After a scientific review required every five years by the federal Clean Air Act, the Obama EPA tightened the national smog standard in 2015 to 70 parts per billion, down from the 75 ppb limit set during the Bush administration.
Average smog concentrations in all of the Wisconsin areas targeted by the EPA exceeded the new federal limit during the past three years, according to state monitoring data. Smog levels peaked at 83 ppb last year in Racine County and averaged 75 ppb between 2015 and 2017.
To help clean up the air, Foxconn’s new factory and existing sources of smog-forming pollution likely would need to install more effective pollution-control equipment, scale back production or broker emissions-trading agreements with cleaner facilities.
Walker, who is seeking re-election this year, has urged the Trump administration to reverse the Wisconsin smog designations. If he succeeds, it would amount to another break for Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company that Walker and the Republican-controlled state Legislature already has cleared to dig up environmentally sensitive wetlands and exempted from a thorough study of how the factory’s pollution will affect the surrounding area.
“We can protect our natural resources and support job creation at the same time,” said Amy Hasenberg, a Walker spokeswoman, citing Foxconn’s promise of thousands of new jobs and the state’s earlier efforts to reduce smog-forming pollution.
Illinois, meanwhile, has said it agrees with the EPA that Chicago and most of the suburbs should remain on the agency’s list of areas with dirty air, which will require the state to expand its smog-fighting efforts. Reducing pollution locally also will aid Wisconsin and other downwind communities, just as required “good neighbor” efforts in other states help Illinoisans breathe easier.