E.P.A. Experts Objected to ‘Misleading’ Agency Smog Decision, Emails Show

By Anonymous
Climate|E.P.A. Experts Objected to ‘Misleading’ Agency Smog Decision, Emails Show
ImageE.P.A. Experts Objected to ‘Misleading’ Agency Smog Decision, Emails Show
Former Gov. Scott Walker, second from left, and President Trump, center, at the planned site of a Foxconn plant in Mount Pleasant, Wis., in 2018.CreditCreditBrendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Want climate news in your inbox? Sign up here for Climate Fwd:, our email newsletter.

WASHINGTON — Newly released emails show that Environmental Protection Agency scientists raised strong objections to a 2018 decision by Scott Pruitt, who was head of the agency at the time, to exempt most of southeastern Wisconsin from federal limits on smog.

The decision by Mr. Pruitt was notable because it came as Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was campaigning for a third term and trying to bring a Foxconn factory, and thousands of new manufacturing jobs, to a part of the state where pollution levels already exceeded federal limits.

Mr. Walker ultimately lost his re-election bid to Tony Evers, a Democrat. And Foxconn, the Taiwanese consumer electronics giant, announced in January that it was reconsidering its plan to build a $10 billion plant in Wisconsin, though the company later said it would build a smaller factory in the state.

But, in spring 2018, as the governor’s race was heating up, Mr. Walker championed the Foxconn deal and the 13,000 jobs it promised to create. The factory, however, also threatened to create a new source of pollution in the region.

Mr. Pruitt subsequently decided to significantly reduce the size of areas in Wisconsin required to crack down on the emissions of pollutants that cause smog. That ruling, which reversed the findings of an agency decision under the Obama administration, would have saved Foxconn from having to install expensive and more stringent pollution controls.

ImageE.P.A. Experts Objected to ‘Misleading’ Agency Smog Decision, Emails Show
Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, on Capitol Hill last year.CreditPete Marovich for The New York Times

Hundreds of emails and internal documents released Friday to two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin, as part of a federal public records request show senior E.P.A. scientists complaining that conclusions in support of the decision, which could not be supported by data, were being demanded by top Trump administration officials.

“I do not see a sound technical basis for the areas we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin,” Jennifer Liljegren, an E.P.A. physical scientist involved in the decision-making, wrote to colleagues in an email dated April 11, 2018. “I will need the wordsmithing of the legal and policy experts if we are really going to do this — I am still in disbelief.”

One of those colleagues, Lars Perlmutt, an E.P.A. health scientist, replied, “I have a background in air pollution health effects and more specifically on acute exposures, so for me personally, this is hard to digest and support.”

A few days later, the emails show, the same staff members expressed concern about “intentional omissions” in the new analyses, which had the effect of reducing the number of Wisconsin counties in violation of federal smog standards.

“Taking snippets of information out of context and not telling the whole story is inappropriate, misleading to the public and dilutes the clarity of the technical information,” Ms. Liljegren wrote.

Michael Abboud, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said in a statement, “We refer you to our recently filed brief in Clean Wisconsin v. E.P.A.” In that brief, part of a lawsuit against the government over the smog designations, the agency said its actions were proper. “In each holistic analysis, E.P.A. considered the relevant factors,” it asserted.

Janet McCabe, who served as the E.P.A. air quality chief under former President Barack Obama, accused the Trump administration of putting politics above public health.

“These are supposed to be science-based decisions under the Clean Air Act, and yet you see career staff struggling to explain unexplainable decisions,” Ms. McCabe said.

Spokesmen for Foxconn and for Governor Evers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman