When air pollution crosses state lines, which state has to do the cleanup?

New York City has some of the most polluted air in the country. Are states in the Midwest and Appalachia in part responsible?

Air pollution -- like the prevailing winds that carry it -- tends not to notice the borders between states. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does. That discrepancy sits at the heart of two stories playing out this week. 

Today, governors from eight northeastern states are asking the EPA to crack down on certain Midwestern and Appalachian states. 

They want their neighbors -- states like Ohio and Kentucky -- to play by the same kinds of rules that the northeastern states have been observing since the 1990s.  

Air quality in the northeastern states has been -- and is -- pretty bad.  So the EPA has required those states to enact strict pollution controls, as part of plans to bring their air up to national standards.

According to a New York Times report, the governors from these states say they’ve done everything they can. 

They say the real problem -- the source of their bad air quality -- is pollution blowing in from Midwestern and Appalachian states with less-stringent controls.

Those states also produce a ton of emissions, but prevailing winds carry the bad stuff to the northeastern states. So states like New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts say they get left holding the bag.

Meanwhile, the EPA itself is asking the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to enforce rules similar to the one the governors are asking for.

It actually made such a rule in 2011, as part of a requirement that’s built into the Clean Air Act. The official name is the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, but people call it the “good neighbor rule.” An appeals court ruled that the EPA’s 2011 rule went too far.

The good neighbor rule would have affected 28 states with coal-fired power plants, where emissions blow downwind and mess up the air in neighboring statesThe polluting states would have had to cut way down on emissions -- probably by burning less coal or even shutting down some power plants. 

Some of those states, along with companies that run coal-fired power plants, sued, saying the EPA was over-reaching. They won the last round, the EPA has appealed, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow. 

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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