WASHINGTON -- Trump administration appointees overruled concerns from their own technical experts in deciding not to impose tougher smog requirements on the Wisconsin county where Foxconn Technology Group planned a $10 billion manufacturing facility, newly released documents show.
Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency initially had recommended labeling Racine County as violating federal air quality standards for ozone in 2017 -- a designation that could have required Taiwan-based Foxconn to install expensive, state-of-the-art pollution controls at its flat-screen manufacturing plant.
But after appeals by Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker and at the apparent direction of then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency reversed course in 2018, ruling Racine was in compliance with the ground-level smog standard. The decision followed weeks of objections from career staff at the agency, who said they saw no technical basis to justify it, according to correspondence released under a public records request.
"I am still in disbelief," one wrote, after citing new directions from Pruitt that clashed with the agency's earlier proposal to label the region as being in "nonattainment."
"I do not see a sound technical basis for the area we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin," Jenny Liljegren, a scientist in EPA's Air and Radiation Division, wrote in an April 11, 2018, email.
The documents, obtained by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin under the Freedom of Information Act, show technical experts repeatedly questioned Wisconsin officials' assertions that the areas should be classified as satisfying federal ozone standards.
Janet McCabe, the EPA's former acting administrator for air quality, said the Trump administration's handling of the issue clashes with the agency's "long tradition of very carefully, consistently applied interpretation by scientists to make recommendations to the administrator about where to draw these lines.
"To see apparent direction from political leadership that the technical staff is objecting to is disturbing," McCabe said in a telephone interview.
In a legal brief filed with a federal appeals court in Washington earlier this month, the EPA asked for permission to reconsider its decision about ozone levels in Racine County and other parts of Wisconsin. While the EPA stressed in its filing it wasn't admitting any errors, the new review could lead the agency to declare the area as violating 2015 ozone limits of 70 parts per billion.
Asked for comment, an EPA spokesman referred to the legal filing. Pruitt resigned last July. Walker was defeated for re-election in November.