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US EPA's watchdog plans audit to assess agency progress toward air quality goals

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US EPA's watchdog plans audit to assess agency progress toward air quality goals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's watchdog office will hold the agency accountable for its stated goal of significantly reducing air pollution by 2022, according to a five-year strategic plan released Oct. 4.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General, or OIG, said it will conduct an audit to assess the agency's progress toward its goal of reducing the number of areas in the country that are not meeting national air quality standards from a baseline of 166 as of October 2017 to 138 by Sept. 30, 2019. The EPA aims to reduce the number of nonattainment areas to 101 by Sept. 30, 2022, according to its own five-year strategic plan, which was finalized in February. Roughly 120 million people lived in areas that were not meeting air quality standards for at least one pollutant in 2016, the EPA noted at the time.

To meet its goals, the EPA said it intends to prioritize the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, and implement stationary source regulations. The NAAQS regulate emissions of carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. Nitrogen oxides are a key ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, while sulfur dioxide is the main component of acid rain.

Although the EPA's plan prioritized air quality, the agency's progress recently has been mixed.

The EPA released a draft of its strategic plan on Oct. 4, 2017 just days after missing a deadline for issuing NAAQS designations for ozone. The following month, the EPA issued attainment designations for thousands of counties that are meeting the 70 parts per billion ground-level ozone standard. But the agency did not release any designations for areas that are not meeting the standard and declined to say when it would do so or seek a formal extension of the missed deadline.

A U.S. District Court judge in March ruled that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the law by failing to issue all area designations for the 2015 NAAQS for ozone by the Oct. 1, 2017, deadline. He therefore ordered the EPA to finalize those designations by April 30, with limited exceptions for several areas of the country. On May 1, the agency publicly named 51 areas in 22 states and the District of Columbia as out of attainment with the NAAQS for ozone, setting off requirements for those regions to clean up precursor pollutants that lead to the formation of smog.

The Trump EPA's five-year plan marked a pivot away from priorities under the Obama administration such as climate change, air quality and chemical safety and toward "cooperative federalism" and the rule of law, according to the document. The EPA OIG said it plans to help the agency by focusing audits and evaluations over the next five years to ensure that "positive progress" is being made toward the air quality goals.

The EPA OIG's report was presented by Inspector General Arthur Elkins, who will leave the office on Oct. 12 after spending eight years in the position.