EPA tightens standards for deadly soot pollution

EPA scientists have calculated that exposure within current limits is causing thousands of Americans to die early each year from heart disease and lung cancer.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is proposing to tighten standards for the deadly air pollutant, saying cutting soot from exhaust pipes, smokestacks and wildfires could prevent thousands of premature deaths a year.

The proposal, released Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency, sets maximum levels of fine particle pollution at 9 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, up from the 12 micrograms set a decade ago under the Obama administration. The particulate pollution standard, better known as soot, was left unchanged by then-President Donald Trump, who rescinded scientific advice for a lower standard in his last days in office.

The environmental and public health groups that pushed for a stricter standard were disappointed, saying the EPA proposal didn’t go far enough to limit emissions of what are broadly referred to as “fine particulate matter,” tiny soot particles that we inhale, invisible from exhaust pipes. , forest fires, chimneys of factories and power plants and other sources.

The EPA said Friday that the development, which could lead to an even lower standard, will also consider comments on a number of ideas presented by the scientific advisory committee, including a proposal to lower the maximum standard for soot to 8 micrograms. A microgram is one millionth of a gram.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said the proposal to tighten national air quality standards for fine particulate pollution would help prevent serious health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death, which disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. These populations include children, the elderly, and people with heart and lung disease, as well as the underprivileged and minorities throughout the United States.

“This administration is committed to working to ensure that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, the community they live in, or the money in their pockets, have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and the opportunity to live a healthy life. life,” Regan said at a press conference. “At the Environmental Protection Agency, we work every single day to create cleaner, healthier communities for everyone and have been doing so for over 50 years.”

Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, called the EPA’s proposal disappointing, saying it was “inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant.”

“Modern science shows that tighter restrictions are urgently needed … to protect vulnerable populations,” Wimmer said, urging the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the standard to 8 micrograms or lower.

Seth Johnson, an attorney for environmental group Earthjustice, called the EPA plan “a disappointment and a missed opportunity overall.” While it will strengthen some public health protections, “EPA falls short of this administration’s ambition to follow the science.” , protect public health and promote environmental justice,” Johnson said. He urged the EPA to “listen to communities, not industrial polluters, and strengthen this rule. Overburdened communities have the right to breathe clean air.”

The US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have called for the standards to remain in place.

“The United States has some of the best air quality in the world thanks to a steady reduction in particulate matter emissions over the past decade,” said Chad Whiteman, vice president of environment and regulation at the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute.

The proposed rule could “strangle manufacturing and industrial investment and exacerbate the permitting problems that continue to weigh on the economy,” Whiteman said.

Mike Ireland, president of the Portland Cement Association, which represents US cement manufacturers, added that the proposed EPA action “is another regulatory burden that will hinder the cement industry’s ability to produce sustainable building materials to meet the needs of the nation’s infrastructure.”

Environmental Protection Agency scientists have calculated that exposure within current limits causes thousands of Americans to die early each year from heart disease and lung cancer, as well as other health problems.

Dr. Doris Brown, president of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest national organization representing African American physicians, hailed the plan as “a bold move needed to protect public health across the country.”

Speaking with Regan at a press conference, Brown said the proposal would likely bring long-term benefits across the country, “but especially for those communities of color and low-income communities facing increased particulate pollution.” Smog, soot and other pollution near factories, power plants and other hazards are having a “devastating impact on public health,” she said.

The EPA proposal would require states, counties and tribes to meet stricter air quality standards for fine particulate matter up to 2.5 microns in diameter, much smaller than the diameter of a human hair. A micron, also called a micrometer, is equal to one millionth of a meter.

The standard won’t force polluters to shut down, but the EPA and state regulators could use it as the basis for other rules that target pollution from specific sources, such as diesel trucks, refineries and power plants.

A 2022 report from the American Lung Association found that 63 million Americans live in counties that experience unhealthy spikes in soot pollution every day, and 21 million live in counties that exceed annual soot pollution levels. The report states that most of these counties were in 11 Western states. The report states that people of color are 61% more likely than whites to live in an area with unhealthy air quality.

The report says Fresno, California has displaced Fairbanks, Alaska as the metropolitan area with the worst short-term particle pollution, while Bakersfield, California continues to rank first in year-round particle pollution for the third year in a row. .

As of December 31, five metropolitan areas did not meet current standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Four of these areas are in California, including the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, is also ineligible.

The EPA will accept comments on the proposed rule by mid-March and will hold a virtual public hearing over the course of several days. The final rule is expected this summer.

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