U.S. EPA's air division has made headlines under President Obama for its push to limit greenhouse gases and toxic pollution, but the busy office is running late with new limits on asthma-inducing soot, close observers of the rulemaking process say.
The Obama administration is nearing a decision point on particulate matter (PM), a pollution cocktail that includes run-of-the-mill dust and the chemical-laden soot that is released when fossil fuels are burned. When the current limits were put in place under President Clinton, the changes prompted an intense backlash from lobbyists and Republicans on Capitol Hill -- a debate that will likely be reprised should the Obama administration decide to act.
EPA has said it will decide by next month whether health concerns justify any changes to the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for particulates.
The soot standards apply from coast to coast, setting a cap on the acceptable amount of dust and soot in the air that Americans breathe. State and local agencies are required to take action when the air in their neck of the woods isn't clean enough.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to finish updating the rules by October, but the agency hasn't yet released a key memo that would lay out Administrator Lisa Jackson's options. Without the final "policy assessment" from air office staffers, which was originally expected in the fall, it will be hard to put out a proposal this spring, said Janice Nolen, director of national policy at the American Lung Association.
EPA is now planning to release a proposal this summer, rather than in February, another source familiar with EPA's review said.
"Particulate matter is a widespread and very dangerous pollutant, so we would like to see some action," Nolen said. "The lack of an appropriate standard and a lack of monitoring doesn't mean that people aren't breathing these particles -- it means nothing is going to be done about it, and that's a serious problem."
The standards have been closely watched by public health groups, which see the pollution limits as a chance to crack down on coal-fired power plants and older diesel trucks. Their emissions include soot that can lead to asthma attacks, hospital admissions and even death.
Still stinging from EPA's decision to take more time on stricter standards for smog and industrial boilers, environmentalists are worried that the soot rules are getting the back-burner treatment. Preliminary advice from staffers suggests the agency will tighten existing limits, but the agency may decide to wait as it scrambles to meet deadlines for other rules.
When asked about the status of the review, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy noted the soot standards are one of a few items on the agenda not facing a strict legal deadline. Most pressing are the standards for carbon monoxide, which need to be updated by Friday.
"The staff are working on many other NAAQS that are under court-ordered deadlines," McCarthy told Greenwire at a meeting of the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee. "I think we're doing our best to keep up, but the PM issue is obviously very important for us."
Going 'the rest of the way'
EPA proposed tighter limits on soot during the George W. Bush administration, but a federal court decided that the agency hadn't shown its rules would do enough to protect public health. The court told the agency to redo the standards, but because the review cycle had already started over again, advocacy groups agreed to let EPA examine the rules on the usual schedule, Nolen said.
That handed the Obama administration the task of updating standards that have been treated by many as the Clean Air Act's poster child.
When the soot limits were tightened by then-Administrator Carol Browner in 1997, trade groups questioned the science behind the standards. One trucking industry official predicted that the soot standards would be "the end of diesel," the Los Angeles Times reported.
But in the years since, the biggest chunk of health benefits from the Clean Air Act have been attributed to EPA's efforts to reduce particle pollution in the air. During the George W. Bush administration, EPA estimated that the Clinton-era soot standards would produce as much as $160 billion in health benefits in 2015 at a cost of about $7 billion.
Controlling the smallest, most dangerous particles is thought to prevent an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 early deaths each year -- more than the United States would see with a cure for AIDS, said Joel Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard University.
Some of those avoided deaths came from other rules, such as the cap-and-trade program that is used to address acid rain, but there will be huge benefits if EPA officials decide to tighten the soot standards, Schwartz said last month at a symposium for EPA's 40th birthday.
"The most obvious thing that we need to do is to go the rest of the way in controlling particles in the air," Schwartz said. If the agency follows through with a strict standard, he added, "that will save more lives in the next 10 years than every single other thing that EPA does, put together."
When it comes to the review of the soot standards, EPA has not yet shown its cards, said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. The agency may want to finish its new standards for ground-level ozone -- the main ingredient in smog -- before it proposes any changes to the limits on soot, he said.
"Everything is moving a little bit slower, and hopefully, the agency is being more thoughtful about what it is proposing," he said. "When we're still working hard to meet the previous standards, it does raise the question of whether you need to move the goalposts today."
If EPA misses the deadline for new standards, someone would need to take the agency to court to force its hand. Given how busy the air office's staffers are, the agency might have to let that happen, Feldman said.
"If they're smart, they can stretch the process for more time," he said. "That's what precedent has shown."
'Everything is hitting at once'
A decision to revise the soot standards would follow the Obama administration's plan to set stricter limits on smog -- a decision that has drawn intense criticism from industry groups and seen multiple delays. The agency originally said it would release a final rule last summer, but in early December, the agency took a third extension, saying it needed until this July to finish the standards.
Some environmentalists have claimed that the Obama administration has started moving more slowly in response to political pressure. One way or the other, the staffers who write the air office's rules are scrambling to meet a slew of legal deadlines, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
"Everything is hitting at once, or at least within a period of several months," Becker said. "I know they're trying their very best, but delays do matter, and it's important for them to get on track with some of these programs."
And things aren't about to get any easier, with industry groups and critics in Congress claiming that EPA has tried to do "too much too fast" under President Obama. That is the unified message being put forward by lawmakers such as House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who would like Congress to block or delay many of the agency's new air pollution rules.
Critics say EPA shouldn't be trying to impose stricter limits on all of the Clean Air Act's "criteria" pollutants, which also include ground-level ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
While most presidents have revised just a couple of the standards during their tenure, the Obama administration could end up tightening the standards for nearly every type of air pollution by the end of his first term, said Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP who was EPA's air chief during the last administration.
Republican appropriators have vowed to cut the agency's funding, a tactic that would serve double duty -- shrinking the federal budget deficit while curtailing the air office's ability to issue regulations that Republicans consider harmful to the economy.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA's budget, will focus on the the fiscal 2012 budget, he said during a recent interview.
"Obviously, there is going to be a reduction in EPA funding," Simpson said. "I think a lot of people would like to see it in the administrative area of EPA, and their ability to go out and write new rules and regulations and things that are of a great deal of concern" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 12).
Coarse and fine
The standards for particulates require every area of the United States to stay under a limit for both fine particulates, which are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, and coarse particulates, which are smaller than 10 microns across.
Right now, the limit on fine particulates is 15 parts per million averaged over the course of an entire year and 35 parts per million averaged over a 24-hour period. Concentrations of coarse particulates may not exceed 150 parts per million averaged over a 24-hour period.
But in a draft policy assessment released last June, EPA staffers and scientific advisers agreed that the current standards might not be strong enough to protect human health, suggesting that stricter limits could be on the way.
The release of that policy assessment prompted a swift backlash from agriculture groups, which are worried that dusty rural areas would be slammed by stricter federal standards on coarse particulates. They described the assessment as a step toward federal rules that would require control of ordinary farm dust.
Tightening the limit to the strictest levels that was recommended by EPA staffers would put 65 percent of the nation's counties out of attainment, up from 12 percent today, agency estimates show. Those nonattainment areas would include many rural counties with smaller populations, compared to the areas -- mainly major population centers -- that haven't achieved the Clinton-era standards.
Right now, there isn't a single nonattainment area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Many lawmakers from the Midwest and Great Plains states are worried that could change.
Using the strictest standard that was suggested in the policy assessment would cause 97 percent of counties in the industrial Midwest and 25 percent of counties in the upper Midwest to be in nonattainment. Right now, every county in the upper Midwest is in attainment and more than three-quarters of the counties in the industrial Midwest have achieved the standards.
About a dozen senators and 75 congressmen, many of them from states with powerful farm lobbies, have asked the agency not to tighten the standards for coarse particles. Rural areas could flunk the standards because of dust that is kicked into the air by farming operations, they said.
"This unreasonable requirement will cause extreme hardship to farmers, livestock producers and other resource-based industries throughout rural America," wrote Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). "People in the West and those in dry climates will be hit especially hard. It's time the EPA rethink the consequences the farm dust regulation will have on the people who feed us" (E&ENews PM, Sept. 27, 2010).
As observers wait to find out how EPA will handle limits on particulates, there hasn't been much debate about the standards for fine particles, said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Walke said he expects some industry groups and lawmakers to criticize EPA's eventual proposal, but he would invite the debate. The effort to reduce soot is EPA's most important regulatory program, he said.
"It saves the most lives by a factor of 10 or 100," Walke said. "There's nothing else that compares."
Click here to read EPA's draft policy assessment.
Click here to read EPA's air quality assessment.