East Coast Governors Sick of Polluting Neighbors

Eastern officials blame the Midwest for the air pollution that still fouls their cities. Will the Supreme Court play referee?

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Matthias Haker Photography via Getty Images

Much of the air pollution in East Coast cities like New York comes from across state borders

What you burn in your state doesn’t always stay in your state. That’s the crux of a petition that the governors of eight Northeastern states will be presenting today to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The East Coast states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont—complain that air pollution from coal plants, factories and cars in the states to their west is crossing state borders and fouling their own air. (The prevailing winds in the U.S. blow from west to east, carrying pollution from the center of the country to the East Coast.) The Eastern governors want the EPA to force tighter air pollution regulations on nine Appalachian and Midwestern states, including Ohio and Michigan.

To Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy, reducing cross-border pollution is a simple issue of fairness:

We’re paying a steep public health and economic price for the failure of upwind states to make investments needed to operate power plants and industrial facilities in a clean and efficient manner.  Now is the ideal time to get the upwind polluters to take action.

(MORE: Satellite Photos Show the Appalling Extent of China’s Air Pollution

Unsurprisingly, those upwind states—and the electric utilities that would be required to install expensive cleaning equipment if air pollution regulations were tightened— disagree, arguing that the more restrictive rules would be too costly, and that bad air in the East Coast states isn’t their fault. The latter is unlikely—Connecticut says that more than 90% of the ozone levels in the southwest of the state comes from areas outside its jurisdiction, and that more than half the general pollution in the state comes from beyond its border. Nor is this just an environmental issue—in recent years scientists have connected air pollution to a slew of health problems, including asthma and cardiovascular disease. The EPA blames exposure to ozone and fine particles in the air for one in 20 deaths in the U.S., along with 90,000 hospital admissions, 200,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 2.5 million cases of aggravated asthma.

The petition comes at a key point in the battle over air pollution regulations. Tomorrow the Supreme Court will consider the issue of cross-state air pollution, in a case that’s focusing on what’s known as the “good neighbor” provision. The rule would require upwind states to enact tougher air pollution regulations, but a federal appeals court struck down the rule last year, arguing that the EPA didn’t give the upwind states enough time to come up with their own rules. Obama’s EPA—which has been working to tighten air pollution rules in recent years, including regulations on carbon emissions—will face a tough fight, as Jeffrey Holmstead, a former Bush EPA official, told USA Today:

I think EPA has an uphill battle. There’s really no way for states to know what they’re supposed to do until EPA determines what level of emissions reduction is needed.

The Supreme Court case and the petition from the East Coast states underscores one clear fact: air pollution regulations, including for climate change, boil down to the problem of coal. Coal is by far the most polluting form of power generation used in the U.S. and Midwestern and Appalachian states depend disproportionately on coal power. It is also the single biggest contributor to global warming. Attacking conventional air pollution or carbon emissions will mean cracking down on coal—and the industry won’t go down without a fight.

But there may be a ray of sunshine in that polluted air for the East Coast. Over the weekend the nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times ran an editorial arguing that the smog in China—which makes the air in New York City or Baltimore look pristine—was actually good for national defense, writing that “on the battlefield, [smog] can serve as a defensive advantage in military operations.” So far the inter-state battle over air pollution has been one of words, but if it comes to blows, at least the East Coast’s imported pollution gives it a tactical advantage.

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