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EPA's reversal on trucks: a sign of things to come?

EPA acting administrator Andrew R. Wheeler hasn’t exactly instilled great confidence in environmentalists and others who care about clean air, water or land that he’s not another Scott Pruitt, the former agency head and anti-regulatory crusader who resigned under an especially thick and noxious ethical cloud several weeks ago. There’s already been a call for an ethics review of his brief tenure given Mr. Wheeler’s past as a coal industry lobbyist and recent reports that he’s already attended private meetings with former clients.

But the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision Thursday to reverse course on “glider trucks,” the super-polluting 18-wheelers that Mr. Pruitt gave a major boost on his last day in office, represents the most hopeful sign to date that the agency may be returning to a more rational road map. Gliders are, in short, rebuilt trucks. Makers put sleek new bodies on highly-polluting diesel engines that have been retooled. Mr. Pruitt ordered his agency not to enforce limits on how many glider trucks and their makers, including Fitzgerald Glider Kits (a Tennessee-based supporter of President Donald J. Trump), can be put on the road.

That’s great for Fitzgerald, but it’s bad for anyone who likes to breathe. Scientists have found glider trucks produce 40- to 50- times more pollution than trucks made since 2014 when tougher emissions standards went into effect. They may be cheaper to operate, but that’s only when they are subsidized by the health and well-being of human beings and other organisms. That’s particularly problematic in states like Maryland, which already suffers some of the worst air quality on the East Coast — much of it outside local control because it drifts in from the Midwest and other areas. Over the last two years, the Baltimore area has experienced 21 days when harmful ozone levels exceeded federal standards compared to 14 the previous three years.

What made Mr. Pruitt’s choice all the more obnoxious was that reducing the toxic materials associated with burning diesel fuel has been one of the EPA’s better success stories. Experts have estimated that the U.S. has been spared thousands of premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses because the government has clamped down on exhaust from diesel engines that are 10 times more polluting than their gasoline counterparts. Diesel air pollution is categorized as a Group 1 human carcinogen, joining such A-listers as tobacco and mustard gas, according to the World Health Organization.

Now, it’s entirely possible Mr. Wheeler was simply being pragmatic, choosing to withdraw the “no action assurance” letter posted by Mr. Pruitt because the arguments for that decision — now under challenge in a federal appeals court — were so flimsy and the decision likely would not have held up to legal review anyway. While glider makers like Fitzgerald stood to benefit, Mr. Pruitt’s policy was bad for U.S. truck manufacturers. That made the choice not so much pro-business as pro-a-favored-business. And given that glider trucks represent less than 5 percent of the 18-wheelers on the road, not a particularly crucial one either.

But if it’s Mr. Wheeler’s intent is to put the EPA on a more rational and responsible path — one that hews more closely to the agency’s 48-year-old mission statement of protecting human and environmental health — he’s got plenty more chances ahead. The first might be to back down from the Trump administration’s recent call for a single fuel efficiency standard in the United States and to freeze that standard at the current federal level for a decade or more. While that might sound pro-business, it’s not necessarily going to sit well with car makers that are investing huge sums in fuel efficient technology in the expectation that long-planned regulations are going into effect. California and other states have pursued tougher fuel and emissions standards for decades. It’s not clear whether the EPA even has authority to delay them.

Perhaps if enough Americans express their appreciation for the EPA’s reversal on glider trucks, President Trump and his acting EPA administrator will get the message that voters care about protecting the environment — and being able to breathe. Technically, the decision not to suspend enforcement may not the be the last word on truck pollution. The EPA could still move forward with an effort to get rid of the glider truck restrictions entirely. That would surely signal that things at the EPA are as bad as ever, and the only real anti-pollution device that Americans can rely upon is the ballot box and the choice of who to put in charge of their government.

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