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EPA Can’t Say If Its Grants Actually Improve Air Quality

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t know whether the hundreds of millions of tax dollars it awards in grants annually actually achieve anything to improve America’s air quality.

“We cannot definitively establish cause and effect on one project’s impact on a city’s air quality,” an EPA spokesman who insisted on anonymity told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The reason EPA can’t measure the effect of its grants is because of the multiplicity of influences involved in determining air quality. These range from federal and state regulations that limit pollution to a particular region’s peculiar geographical features.

The EPA awarded nearly $4 billion in grants last year. Not all of those were related to air quality, according to USAspending.gov, although the website’s data is often incomplete. The agency also doled out $532 million from 2009 to 2014 for just one program to decrease air pollutants caused by diesel emissions, according to a TheDCNF analysis of more than 100,000 EPA grants.

The EPA grants database was compiled by Open The Books and includes all EPA grants for the period of 2009 to 2014.

“One is going to find it difficult to track the expenditure of dollars to specific air pollution improvements in an area,” National Association of Clean Air Agencies Executive Director Bill Becker told TheDCNF. “Air quality is affected by meteorology, it’s affected by temperature. Some areas can’t control the amount of pollution, irrespective of how much money they get.”

“We’ve seen situations where money has been cut and air quality has suffered,” Becker said.

But one skeptic expected such a claim.

“I’m not surprised that they told you that,” Heritage Foundation research fellow Diane Katz told TheDCNF. “Even if the EPA were trying to do some assessment, I would have little confidence in their results.”

Even so, Katz said EPA officials should want to evaluate their grants to determine the most efficient use of taxpayer funds.

Instead, agency officials claim diesel emission reductions linked to their grants improve air quality, but in multiple reports in recent years EPA’s inspector general has exposed the tenuous ground underlying the assertion.

“Some more specific grants to [a] particular project are more easily quantifiable in terms of emissions reduced from that one project,” the spokesman told TheDCNF. Diesel Emission Reduction Act grant money, for example, “goes toward improving engines, whether it’s to replace old engines or retrofit them to improve emission performance.”

“EPA estimates that every $1 in DERA funding generates up to $13 in health savings,” the spokesman continued. “Depending on the type of equipment, new diesel engines are 90% cleaner than the old engines they replace.”

The spokesman, however, declined to produce requested details including the number of vehicles replaced, how effectively the grants improved air quality and how much has been spent on the effort.

The IG found numerous problems with diesel emissions reductions grants, reviewing $26 million in seven reports issued between 2012 and 2014. The watchdog questioned how 90 percent of those funds were spent.

EPA spent $294 million on such grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, according to the IG, though the watchdog also noted that “the limited sample size … may not be representative” of all the diesel emissions reduction awards.

One report, for example, found that a Tennessee Department of Transportation program “overstated” its results and couldn’t assure it would “achieve its projected emissions reductions and, ultimately, expected environmental and human health benefits.”

The IG also reported diesel emissions reduction grants couldn’t always be proven to “achieve the desired emissions reductions. As a result, the EPA could overestimate emissions reductions for grant activities.”

“Additionally, EPA funds were used to replace vehicles that would have been replaced anyway due to normal attrition,” the IG said.

EPA agreed to follow the watchdog’s recommendations and improved its oversight through changes such as “initiating yearly project officer and grantee training” and conducting “baseline and advanced monitoring” on the program, the IG said.

The agency can at least measure changes to overall air quality, which has improved nationwide, according to the EPA spokesman.

[dcquiz] “The point is that air quality is better due to efforts from all levels of government, businesses and private citizens,” the EPA spokesman said. “Federal and state rules are helping reduce fine particle pollution, including clean diesel rules for vehicles and fuels, and rules to reduce pollution from power plants, industries, locomotives, and marine vessels, among others.”

The spokesman said ozone concentrations have decreased by a third since 1980 and fine particles — referred to by EPA as “particulate matter” — went down 35 percent from 2000 to 2014. Particulate matter is associated with diesel emissions.

But the IG found problems with those measurements, too. The watchdog recently reported that one region couldn’t prove its air pollution monitors were operating correctly.

EPA’s Region 6, which covers five south-central states, “did not not provide evidence that each monitoring site met regulatory siting criteria,” the IG reported in December 2015. “Some annual plans contained factual errors such as mis-characterized sites or were even missing information related to PM2.5 sites.”

Agency officials must ensure that air quality monitors are properly maintained before credible measurements can be made in determining whether a particular region is in compliance with federal standards, the IG said.

“In one instance, an annual plan did not identify changed site conditions, resulting in the EPA invalidating years’ worth of data.”

EPA officials agreed to follow the IG’s corrective recommendations.

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