By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Politically appointed U.S. environmental officials last year overruled concerns of career scientists about air pollution in a Wisconsin county where U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed for a factory to be built by Foxconn Technology Co, newly released internal emails show.
Trump has been a supporter of the Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn building a flat screen factory in Racine County Wisconsin, a project the company said could create up to 13,000 jobs. He announced the project at a ceremony in 2017 and has claimed it is proof of his ability to revive U.S. manufacturing. Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, helped secure about $4 billion in tax breaks for the project.
But Racine County has suffered some of the state’s worst cases of smog, also known as ozone, pollution that causes premature deaths from lung and heart complications.
The emails obtained by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin under a freedom of information request show Trump administration officials, including then-administrator Scott Pruitt, overruled career EPA scientists to exempt Racine County from a list of counties that break smog standards. That has freed Foxconn from having to make millions of dollars in pollution control devices, if the project is eventually built.
The Racine County case is latest example of the administration overlooking concerns flagged by agency scientists over other issues such as climate change or hazardous chemicals.
“My background is in air pollution health effects and more specifically on acute exposures, so for me personally this is hard to digest and support,” Lars Perlmutt, an EPA scientist, wrote to colleagues in an April email last year about pressure to make the exemption, one of the emails shows.
Jenny Liljegren, a scientist in the air and radiation division in EPA’s Midwest region, said she was “in disbelief” about the pressure from officials to make the exemptions. “I do not see a sound technical basis for the areas we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin.”
In an exchange of emails with Liljegren, another EPA scientist, Eric Svingen, complained that Wisconsin “cherry picked” air quality data over wider areas of the state to suggest that emissions that form smog were not ultimately doing so within the Wisconsin borders.
“These emails show is that the political leadership appeared to be injecting itself in this process in a way that’s contrary to having fact-based decisions,” said Janet McCabe, head of air quality at the EPA under former President Barack Obama.
Foxconn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In April the company, an Apple Inc supplier, said it was committed to its contract to build the flat screen plant and research facilities in Wisconsin.
EPA spokesman Michael Abboud referred questions about the emails to a brief the agency filed May 10 in the case. The brief said that EPA considers a wide range of information in deciding which areas are in compliance with air pollution rules and that “each designation is intensely fact-driven.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Illinois, which neighbors Wisconsin and could see greater levels of pollution, sued the EPA last year over the exemption in Racine County and the agency is also under pressure from lawsuits from environmental groups.
In the May 10 brief, the EPA asked a federal appeals court to take another look at the smog exemption decisions under Pruitt, but until the court makes any ruling companies do not have to purchase the pollution equipment.
(additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)