Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is calling on EPA’s internal watchdog to investigate whether "inappropriate political interference" played a part in the agency’s threat to withhold highway funds from California over failing to meet clean air standards.
In a letter Friday to EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the senior senator from California, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA, requested an investigation after Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the California Air Resources Board that the state was at risk of losing funding for transportation projects and being hit with new federal sanctions.
"I write to ask that you investigate whether there was inappropriate political interference in the recent threat from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withhold transportation funding from California," Feinstein said in her letter to Deputy EPA Inspector General Charles Sheehan.
"California has the worst air quality in the United States," he said, noting the state has 82 nonattainment areas and 34 million people living in areas that didn’t meet air quality standards. In addition, the administrator said California had a backlog of more than 130 state implementation plans, which are used to reduce air pollution.
EPA recommended California withdraw those plans and work with the agency to develop new ones. If the state failed to do so, EPA would begin a disapproval process that would trigger statutory highway funding sanctions, New Source Review permitting sanctions and a deadline for a federal implementation plan, Wheeler said.
In her letter to the IG office, Feinstein took issue with Wheeler, noting that some of the California counties’ SIPs the administrator cited as problematic were either awaiting EPA approval, not county action, or still had time left to comply with air standards.
She also asked EPA’s inspector general to investigate whether other states had open SIPs and had been threatened with sanctions, noting there are counties in three dozen other states that do not meet air standards but there are no reports suggesting they have been treated as California has.
"I am concerned that California is being unfairly targeted, and that this issue of backlogged state implementation plans is nothing more than a pretext to attack California, rather than a good-faith effort to help improve California’s air quality," Feinstein said.
An EPA spokeswoman told E&E News the agency is carrying out its mission, not playing politics, when it comes to California.
"EPA’s actions are not political," said the agency spokeswoman. "Carrying out our mission of protecting the environment and human health is not a political issue, and we will continue to work toward fulfilling that mission."
California has been at loggerheads with EPA under the Trump administration, a conflict that intensified last week.
Along with his letter to CARB on Tuesday, Wheeler also sent a separate letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) saying there were statewide problems with clean water standards and San Francisco would need to invest billions to clean up its sewer system.
That letter came about a week after President Trump’s comments to reporters on Air Force One alleging the city’s homeless population was polluting water. "You know there are needles; there are other things," the president said.
EPA and California have been already been in a greater battle over auto fuel efficiency rules.
Trump barred the state from setting tougher greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and has also pushed back on California’s deal with four major automakers on emission rules as EPA is about to issue its own weaker standards. Democrats have said EPA’s targeting of California aligns with Trump’s political agenda, which his supporters deny (Greenwire, Sept. 27).
Feinstein said EPA’s concern for the state’s air quality doesn’t mesh with the agency’s actions on car emission standards.
"I am particularly concerned by this latest action in light of the fact that during the same month, EPA has moved to block California from regulating tailpipe emissions, one of the largest sources of air pollution in California," Feinstein said in her letter to EPA’s inspector general.
"It would certainly seem counter-intuitive for EPA to sanction California for poor air quality while at the same time attempting to remove one of California’s biggest tools to improve its air quality."
EPA IG office spokeswoman Tia Elbaum told E&E News the watchdog office has received the senator’s letter.
"The Deputy IG and his leadership team are reviewing the request," Elbaum said.