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Investigation finds concerning loophole in landmark piece of legislation: 'You need to level with the public'

"We really are trying to pull out all the stops."

“We really are trying to pull out all the stops.”

Photo Credit: iStock

Passing climate policy law is something to celebrate, but sometimes, we later find loopholes in the policies we pushed so hard to pass. 

One recent study found that the landmark Clean Air Act allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ignore air pollutants caused by "natural" or "uncontrollable" events. If you were one of the millions of Americans who spent a day under orange skies in 2023, this news is hard to hear.

What's happening

The Clean Air Act, which works to keep our skies blue and air clean to breathe, has a loophole called the "exceptional events rule," which has been used by 70 counties in the United States to strike bad air quality days from record, per the Guardian. 

Since 2016, California counties have had 166 days of air pollution removed from the EPA's records. That's 166 days of unhealthy air gone from the record and overlooked in policymaking. California has had tens of thousands of wildfires since 2016, including a handful of fires that caused millions of dollars of damage in a couple of days.

Why is this loophole concerning?

One effect of Earth's rising temperature is the costs of an increased frequency and strength of natural disasters, from hurricanes to fires. These events cause billions of dollars of damage and cause illness and death in thousands to tens of thousands of people every year. With this loophole in the Clean Air Act, pollution caused by any of these events can be struck from the EPA's records.

The public deserves to know any time there is unhealthy air quality, as well as historical data. Wildfires are a huge threat to human health, and their impact must not be overlooked. If counties are able to strike these "exceptional" events from the data, there is no accountability to make new legislation to mitigate these events in the future.

"You need to level with the public about the number of days when the air quality was unhealthy," said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

What's being done about the exceptional events rule?

The EPA has begun taking action toward closing the loophole. They encourage "mitigation plans" in which governing bodies create plans to notify and educate the public about pollution. Quick response is crucial so that people know when air quality is unhealthy and at-risk populations know to stay inside. 

Some states have begun to set up clean air sites where people can shelter from dangerous outside pollution.

Officials have said they are working tirelessly at this problem: "We really are trying to pull out all the stops." 

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