Longview Power Plant

The Longview Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, is seen on August 21, 2018 in Maidsville, West Virginia.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Stronger EPA Soot Standards Called an Overdue 'Step Toward Cleaner Air'

"Even with these new protections in place, too many people's health will still be at risk from dangerous exposures to PM2.5," one expert said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Wednesday that it had finalized tougher standards on soot, or fine particulate matter pollution, one of the deadliest types of air pollution.

In a move largely applauded by environmental and public health groups and protested by industry, the EPA said it was strengthening the national ambient air quality standard for soot from an annual limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to nine micrograms per cubic meter, which—according to the agency—would prevent as many as 4,500 early deaths each year.

"This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America's most vulnerable and overburdened communities," EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. "Cleaner air means that our children have brighter futures, and people can live more productive and active lives, improving our ability to grow and develop as a nation."

Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) kills almost 50,000 people in the U.S. every year and led to 4.2 million early deaths worldwide in 2019. It is released primarily by the burning of fossil fuels by factories, power plants, and vehicles and causes health problems like respiratory ailments, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It is also a major environmental justice issue, as low-income communities of color tend to experience a higher pollution burden.

"Particulate matter pollution is deadly, especially for children and older Americans. The Biden administration's new air quality standards will save thousands of lives and help address unjust disparities in air quality for communities of color and low-income communities," Patrice Simms, Earthjustice's vice president of litigation for healthy communities, said in a statement. "We applaud EPA for issuing a rule that will help reduce heart disease, asthma, and other serious illnesses. We look forward to EPA's implementation efforts, which must include robust enforcement and rigorous monitoring."

The World Health Organization has set its annual target for PM2.5 to five micrograms per cubic meter and its 24-hour target to 15. It calculates that 99% of people on Earth breath air that exceeds its health limit for several pollutants including PM2.5. Despite this, the EPA has not updated its PM2.5 standards since 2012.

"It's shameful that, in the face of such clear and compelling evidence of the public health and economic benefits of stronger soot standards, big polluters and their allies in Washington do everything in their power to undermine these commonsense air pollution standards."

The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review the science and decide whether or not to update the standard every five years. However, while the EPA under former President Donald Trump did complete an assessment, it chose not to strengthen the standards in December 2020. Its own scientists concluded that lowering the safety limit from 12 to nine micrograms would decrease yearly deaths by 12,150, but various industry groups urged the administration not to make any changes, according to The New York Times. Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler also dismissed an outside group of expert scientists who were consulting on the measure. In response, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reassembled the panel in 2019. The experts concluded that the EPA should raise its standards to protect public health.

"The delays in updating this standard come at a steep cost, and lingering pollution impacts are too often borne by communities of color and low-income communities already facing disproportionate cumulative pollution burdens," Chitra Kumar, managing director of the UCS' Climate & Energy Program, said in a statement. "Those delays are due in large part to the previous administration dismissing a key science advisory board and ignoring the overwhelming evidence that the PM2.5 standard was insufficient."

While the UCS applauded the new standards, it argued the agency could have gone even further.

"New rules are long overdue, and today's final rule is a step toward cleaner air and healthier communities," Kumar said. "However, even with these new protections in place, too many people's health will still be at risk from dangerous exposures to PM2.5."

One gap in EPA regulations is that there are no standards in place to protect people from ultrafine particulate matter.

"The science is clear—ultra-fine particles make their way into the bloodstream contributing to premature death," said Beto Lugo Martinez, an environmental and climate justice leader who is part of the group Coming Clean.

American Lung Association president Harold Wimmer told the Times that the EPA should have set the limit at eight instead of nine, which was the safest standard in the 8 to 10 micrograms range recommended by the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. while the Sierra Club pointed out that the agency did not tighten the limit on 24-hour exposure, which remains at 35 micrograms. Lowering this number was also a committee recommendation.

However, the EPA under Regan and President Joe Biden has resisted industry pressure by strengthening the standards at all. In October 2023, representatives from sectors including fossil fuels, manufacturing, and mining sent a letter to Chief of Staff Jeffrey Zients arguing that a nine-microgram standard would "risk jobs and livelihoods by making it even more difficult to obtain permits for new factories, facilities, and infrastructure to power economic growth" as well as hamper Biden administration efforts like the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act.

In responding to journalists Tuesday, EPA officials pushed back against the economic arguments, according toThe Guardian. They said that the country would in fact see up to $77 in health benefits in 2032 for every $1 spent on complying with the update, and that 99% of U.S. counties were already on track to meet the new standard by that date, which is most likely the date by which states would face fines for not complying with the new standard.

"It's shameful that, in the face of such clear and compelling evidence of the public health and economic benefits of stronger soot standards, big polluters and their allies in Washington do everything in their power to undermine these commonsense air pollution standards," Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous said in a statement. "Their resistance is a stark reminder that the fight for clean air and a healthier future is far from over, and we will continue working to ensure the benefits of these stronger air pollution standards reach the communities that need them most."

The next step is for the EPA to spend the coming two years determining which areas do not meet the revised standards. After that point, the states that do not meet them would have 18 months to draft a plan to lower pollution levels.

Environmental advocates see the new standards as a chance to improve air quality and health in frontline communities such as the nation's ports.

"We're elated by the EPA's decision to finalize a significantly stronger air quality standard that will better protect all Americans, especially port communities," Terrance Bankston, Friends of the Earth's senior ports and freights campaigner, said in a statement. "Many Americans have been subjected to disproportionate health risks from air pollution via port operations for decades. The biggest offender has and continues to be soot pollution from port emissions. For LatinX residents, the exposure to soot pollution is 75% higher. For Black Americans, the risk of dying from soot pollution is the highest, with a rate of over triple that of white Americans."

Ports now have an opportunity to use the $3 billion from the EPA's Clean Port Program to switch to zero-emissions technology.

"We encourage port stakeholders to use the EPA's announcement as an opportunity to be on the right side of history," Bankston said.

The rule, and the science behind it, is also a reminder that fossil fuels harm human health even beyond driving the climate crisis, and that both regulating their pollution and transitioning away from them can have multiple benefits.

"Air pollution used to be the price we had to pay to heat our homes, commute, or produce goods by burning coal, oil, and gas. Thankfully, in the rapidly accelerating renewable energy era, that's no longer the case," Lisa Frank, executive director of Environment America Research & Policy Center's Washington Office, said in a statement. "These soot standards will save lives, clear our skies, and alleviate the burden of asthma and other illnesses. That's something all Americans should celebrate."

Across the nation, the success of the new rule will also depend on the degree to which the EPA holds violators to account.

"EPA must support the new standard with strong enforcement on polluters," Martinez said. "The continued influence of polluters on EPA does not align or meet with the administration's claimed priorities on environmental justice. Weak standards and weak enforcement give a green light to polluters and the government to continue business as usual."

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