Some of New York’s pollution belongs to Virginia and Michigan

Winds in the US typically blow west to east, which means coal country is dumping soot on the Northeast.
Winds in the US typically blow west to east, which means coal country is dumping soot on the Northeast.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Cole
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New York City is the ninth-most smog-choked city in America, but it’s not all New Yorkers’ fault. Air pollution travels on the wind, and wind doesn’t concern itself with state borders. In other words: When coal-fired power plants in Appalachian and Rust Belt states belch out smog-forming pollution, some of it ends up in the Big Apple.

That’s precisely why New York and seven other northeastern states filed a lawsuit on Dec. 22 against the US Environmental Protection Agency, in an attempt to force the agency to clamp down on pollution coming from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“Millions of New Yorkers are breathing unhealthy air as smog pollution continues to pour in from other states,” New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman said in a statement to Reuters.

The suit is the latest in a legal saga that began in 2013, when the same plaintiffs—attorneys general from the “downwind” states of New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont—asked that the nine named “upwind” states be forced to limit their pollution from coal mining (in Appalachia) and coal-fired power plants (in the Rust Belt).

The downwinders argued that the Appalachian and Rust Belt states were enjoying the profits of producing cheap energy with lax pollution controls, while their northeastern counterparts were being made to suffer the consequences. The states said they had done everything they could to scrub their own sources of pollution, but thanks to a wind pattern that blows from west to east across the US, their pollution levels were often still illegally high—thanks to the other states’ toxic waste.

The plaintiffs want the upwind states added to the EPA’s official “Ozone Transport Region,” which requires regionally specific pollution controls for smog-forming ozone that take into account wind patterns. The 2013 case ended with an order for the EPA to decide by October 2017 whether to add them; EPA administrator Scott Pruitt opted not to. Now it’s up to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where the latest suit was filed, to decide whether to overturn his decision.

Prior to working in Trump’s EPA, Pruitt was the attorney general of Oklahoma. While in that post, he sued the Obama-era EPA over its Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would curb power-plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—two chemicals that form smog—since they are known to cross state lines. Both are notorious contributors to asthma, among a host of other ailments. As the Intercept reported, Pruitt filed that suit alongside Murray Energy, Peabody Energy, and Southern Power Company. All three companies donated to Pruitt and his political action committee.