With six weeks left in President Trump’s term, EPA has cemented plans to bypass tighter soot standards, despite agency career staff conclusions and concerns about tens of thousands of additional deaths every year.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has signed a final rule to keep the existing ambient air quality standards for soot in place at least another five years, according to people familiar with the matter both inside and outside the agency, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified. A formal public announcement is scheduled for later this afternoon.
An EPA spokesman declined to comment in advance of that announcement.
The decision, which marks a victory for the fossil fuel industry but is certain to be challenged in court, comes as no surprise. In signing the draft rule this spring, Wheeler said he believed the existing limits sufficed to protect public health (Greenwire, April 14).
But his determination bypassed the findings of EPA air office employees who concluded in a report this year that the existing annual limit on soot exposure could be too weak to prevent "a substantial number" of premature deaths each year. An overview of 30 urban areas, for example, tied exposure to as many as 45,000 annual deaths from heart disease and other causes, with minority communities at greater risk. Those findings didn’t take into account more recent research suggesting that long-term exposure to soot may also heighten vulnerability to COVID-19 (Greenwire, April 30).
As E&E News has previously reported, critics are already angling to reverse the decision under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden (Greenwire, Nov. 23). In a letter late last month, for example, Democratic attorneys general from 16 states urged EPA to reopen the review on the grounds that fresh evidence of soot’s perils had surfaced.
Equally contentious was the process by which the Trump administration pursued the legally required review of standards for what is formally known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5.
Under a fast-track timetable put in motion in mid-2018, the review is ending roughly two years ahead of its previous schedule.
While Wheeler cited the recommendation of an agency advisory committee in opting to stick with the status quo, that committee is chaired by a consultant who had previously done work for the American Petroleum Institute and was nominated for the position by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In late 2018, in what he later described as a streamlining move, Wheeler fired an auxiliary panel of researchers who were providing additional expertise to the review.
In statements today, environmental and scientific advocacy groups denounced his decision to stick with the status quo.
"The Trump administration rigged the rule-making process to achieve exactly this result by cutting science and scientists out of the picture at every turn," said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, which last year reconvened the fired panel to conduct a competing unofficial review, which found the evidence warranted tighter standards.
"The worst part of all of this is that low income communities and communities of color will bear the brunt of Wheeler’s heartless decision," said Al Armendariz, an Obama-era EPA official who is now a senior director at the Sierra Club. "We look forward to the new administration following the scientific evidence and setting the air quality standard that meets legal requirements to protect public health."
Soot is known as PM2.5 because it is no bigger than 2.5 microns in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair; its formation is closely associated with the burning of coal and oil products. With an ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and even get into the bloodstream, the tiny particles are associated with an array of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including a greater risk of premature death under some circumstances.
EPA’s current annual exposure threshold for PM2.5, set in 2012, is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air; the daily limit, dating back to 2006, is 35 micrograms. In this year’s report, EPA career staff concluded that the evidence justified an annual standard as low as 8 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Under the Clean Air Act, particulate matter is among a half-dozen common pollutants for which EPA must set and periodically review ambient air quality standards at least every five years. While the agency rarely meets that timetable, the newly signed final rule is intended to keep the existing standards in place through 2025 at a minimum.
On Friday, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs completed a routine review of the final draft rule, according to a government tracking website. In sending the rule back to EPA, OIRA officials canceled several meetings that had previously been scheduled with the California Air Resources Board, Environment America and the Natural Resources Defense Council, representatives for the three organizations confirmed in email messages and via Twitter.