Smoke, Screened: The Clean Air Act’s Dirty Secret

“Smoke, Screened” is an investigative series by The California Newsroom, MuckRock and the Guardian on the large environmental impact of a little-noticed deregulatory tool found in the Clean Air Act. The provision in the Clean Air Act has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to strike pollution from clean air tallies in more than 70 counties, enabling local regulators to claim the air was cleaner than it really was for more than 21 million Americans. The loophole allows regulators to forgive pollution, and avoid costly cleanup work, caused by “natural” or “uncontrollable” events, including wildfires.

First pushed into law in 2005 by former Republican senator Jim Inhofe, the exceptional events rule has become a “regulatory escape hatch” for states that want to meet increasingly strict federal air-quality standards. Local regulators are turning to the exceptional events rule for wildfires more and more often to reach air-quality goals – goals that are harder to meet as the climate crisis gets worse.

Read through our methodology, which includes a GitHub repository of all the data and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

7 Articles

Jessica Beverly and her 8-year-old son, Teddy, feed chickens at their 9-acre hobby farm on Nov. 6, 2023, in Woodstock. "The health department issued alerts and the cities canceled some of their outdoo

Midwest pollution spiked dramatically this summer because of Canadian wildfires. Now officials may erase those days from the books.

Dozens of states and the EPA are so concerned they may exclude the smokiest days from the legally binding score cards that determine whether they’re doing enough to fight pollution, according to a joint collaboration between the Tribune and the nonprofit news site MuckRock. Now some states are considering banding together in a joint effort that could trigger the largest exclusion in the history of the federal Clean Air Act

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The Salt Fire burns in Shasta County, as seen from I-5 June 30, 2021. Photograph: Andrew Nixon/CapRadio

Smoke, Screened: As U.S. wildfires pollute the skies, a loophole is obscuring the impact. Can it be fixed?

Everyone agrees it’s time to change the Clean Air act’s exceptional events rule, but has different solutions.

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Shobe has his own air monitor on his porch. Photograph: Brittany Greeson/The Guardian

Smoke, Screened: In Detroit, a ‘magic wand’ makes dirty air look clean — and lets polluters off the hook

Across the US, local governments, lobbyists and industry have spent millions to get wildfire pollution excluded from the record. People like Robert Shobe pay the price.

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