U.S. EPA announced today that it plans to tighten limits on the small particles of soot from power plants, boilers and car tailpipes, pleasing public health advocates but adding to the list of regulations opposed by large business groups and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Facing a court-ordered deadline, Administrator Lisa Jackson signed a proposal yesterday to lower the national ambient air quality standard for fine particles from 15 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year to between 12 and 13 micrograms.
EPA said the change reflects a growing body of evidence that current levels of exposure to fine particles can cause a variety of health problems, including early death, heart attacks and strokes. Some people, including children, are particularly vulnerable to soot, which is also linked to aggravated asthma and other respiratory ailments.
"Based on our review of the science and advice from our independent science advisers, it's clear that to protect public health we have to strengthen the annual standard," EPA air chief Gina McCarthy told reporters today.
Notably, the agency said 99 percent of the country will meet the new requirement without taking any additional steps by the 2020 deadline, as long as other air pollution rules for power plants, boilers and diesel engines -- some of which are being challenged in Congress by Republicans and in court by industry groups -- are implemented.
EPA's analysis found two areas, Southern California's Riverside and San Bernardino counties, could not meet a 13-microgram standard by 2020, while four others would fail to meet a 12-microgram limit: Santa Cruz County, Ariz.; Jefferson County, Ala.; Wayne County, Mich.; and Lincoln County, Mont.
There are still more rules being considered by EPA to fight soot, such as a requirement for low-sulfur gasoline that would help the catalytic converters in cars and trucks work more effectively. But even without action on that front, McCarthy said, it is "unique" to see a standard that can be met with so little action by state and local governments.
"Regardless of what we do from this point forward, we know that on the books, we're achieving the reductions that these state and local governments are relying on to produce health protections," she said.
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is forbidden to consider costs of new standards, but it said every dollar spent on pollution controls for the rule would reap a return of $30 to $86. The agency's analysis showed that a 12-microgram standard would cost $69 million but provide $2.3 billion to $5.9 billion in benefits, while a 13-microgram limit would cost $2.9 million and yield $88 million to $220 million in benefits.
EPA's soot standard has long been the subject of controversy. The agency came out with a somewhat stricter standard in 2006, but a federal court tossed them out in 2009, saying they did not do enough to protect public health.
The agency accepted an October 2011 deadline to redo the standards but failed to meet it. That led several states and public health groups, including the American Lung Association, to file a lawsuit forcing the agency to act.
In court briefs, EPA said it was planning to issue the finalized standard by August 2013, but a judge said that was far too long and gave EPA until yesterday to issue its proposal and until Dec. 14 to finish it (Greenwire, June 6).
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat and one of the officials who led the challenge, declared victory today as the states and health groups reached an agreement with EPA on the December deadline.
"With this settlement, the health of over 100 million American will no longer be ignored, and the years of delay in revising our nation's current lax soot standards will end," Schneiderman said.
EPA says it will still consider other changes to the annual standard, down to levels as low as 11 micrograms. It will take comments for nine weeks and hold a pair of public hearings in Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif.
EPA's proposal also would create a new standard to improve visibility in urban areas where soot currently darkens the air.
And under today's proposal, EPA would keep a current limit of 35 microgram per cubic meter, measured daily, that prevents brief spikes in soot levels. It also would keep current standards dealing with effects on the environment and the climate, as well as standards for coarse particles that include the dust kicked up by livestock and vehicles on dirt and gravel roads.
Health groups were happy, even though some had called for all of those standards to be tightened.
"Overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution at levels currently labeled as officially 'safe' causes heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks," said Albert Rizzo, chairman of the American Lung Association. "The Clean Air Act gives the American public the truth about pollution that is threatening their lives and health -- just as they would expect the truth from their doctor."
As easy as promised?
EPA is framing the soot standard as being easy to meet under other new air quality rules, but even the rule's supporters say it might not be so simple.
Maps and charts released today by EPA show that all but a few counties will have their soot under control by 2020. The problem is, that is not when the agency actually grades their work.
State and local governments will be watching about 1,000 air quality monitors over the next three years to see whether their soot levels are low enough. Using data from those monitors, EPA will decide by December 2014 which counties are passing and which ones are failing.
Those that fail will enter a state called "nonattainment," which forces large industrial plants and other sources of air pollution to make deeper cuts in emissions if they want permits.
Bill Becker, the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the group strongly supports EPA's proposal because fine particles pose a major health risk. But he said states cannot rest on their laurels.
"We can't bank on all of this occuring by eight or 10 years from now," Becker said, noting that they are being challenged in Congress and in the courts. Federal rules will help, and they are appreciated, he added, but "this is not going to be a cakewalk for areas that are in nonattainment."
A main reason is that one of the key sources of reductions, EPA's new limits on soot from power plants, would take effect at the beginning of 2015. The agency is about to put the finishing touches on rules for large industrial boilers, but those companies would also get three years to cut their emissions.
That means the cost of new air quality standards will rely heavily on those rules surviving challenges in court and in Congress.
The proposal drew criticism from industry groups such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents coal companies and coal-burning power companies. Howard Feldman, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said the agency should weigh the option to leave the standard unchanged.
He said the oil industry group's own data show that areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania are flunking the standards of 12 and 13 micrograms. Those two states have a large population of coal-burning power plants, which would need to make substantial cuts in soot and other soot-forming chemicals over the next few years.
But even if EPA is right that those rules will help the states meet the standard by 2020, companies might have a harder time getting permits starting in 2014 or 2015, and that would hurt their local economy, Feldman said.
They are key to the economy with soaring natural gas production from underground shale formations, and they are where "we, as an industry, are planning to produce a significant amount of energy to fuel the nation," he said.
Click here to read the proposal.