Air Pollution

American Lung Association's Janice Nolen examines EPA's options on new soot regs

As the U.S. EPA considers whether to establish new standards for ultra-fine soot particles, Janice Nolen, director of national policy at the American Lung Association, explains the need for more stringent rules. She discusses some of the health research about particulate matter completed since President Clinton first established the regulations in 1997. Plus, Nolen talks about how new standards could affect coal-fired power plants and diesel-powered vehicles, and whether new rules might be a springboard for passing Clear Skies legislation.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington to talk about air quality issues is Janice Nolen, the director of national policy at the American Lung Association. Ms. Nolen thanks so much for being on the show.

Janice Nolen: Thank you for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: The EPA is right now involved in a pretty complicated process to decide if they want to revise and change their air quality standards for the whole country for fine particulate matter. Can you explain to us how did we get to this point right now?

Janice Nolen: Absolutely. One of the requirements that EPA has is to determine how much air pollution is safe for us to breathe and they're required to do this every five years. They haven't done this particular pollutant to see how much safely we can breathe of particle pollution for at least 10 years and so they're well overdue. The American Lung Association, through a court action, got them to set a schedule and it required that they actually reviewed this, complete the review and announce what the new standards might be before the end of this year. And then the final standards will be adopted by September 27, 2006.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK and EPA doesn't actually have to change the standards if they don't want to correct?

Janice Nolen: Absolutely, it's a very good point. They just have to look at them and see whether or not what we know about the science is reflected in the standards themselves. Now this review has been very clear that the standards that we adopted in 1997 in no way protect public health. In fact the recommendations that EPA's own staff and that independent scientists looked at it and said, no, we've got to reduce this. We've got to tighten this standard. We've got to have a lower threshold before we can consider it safe.

Darren Samuelsohn: And what we know that's different between 1997 and today about air quality and in particular fine particulate matter and the health effects of that?

Janice Nolen: In the early 1990s there were some studies that were done that indicated that particle pollution could kill people, short and simple. In the last 10 years we've gone a lot further with that and we understand that some of the uncertainties we had back then have been firmed up. And we know that it actually does shorten life, both when you're exposed to it on a short term basis and a long term basis. And other health effects associated with levels much lower than the standards that were set in 1997 have been found in study after study after study. So EPA is almost compelled to actually tighten this, to say the definition of clean air is different than it was in 1997.

Darren Samuelsohn: Explain for us, what is today's standard and what do you think the new standard should look like?

Janice Nolen: Well there are two standards actually that deal with particle pollution. One is the 24 hour standard and that's really a short term. That deals with spikes and peaks, when you've got say an inversion that comes along and the air pollution builds up over a day or two or even a week. That's one standard and right now that's set at 65 micrograms per cubic meter. That one is way too high. The standards are recognizing that we're having health effects as low as 25 micrograms per cubic meter, which is significantly lower. There's also an annual standard. That looks at day in and day out how much pollution you breathe. Right now it's set at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. And then the EPA's recommendations look as low as 12 micrograms per cubic meter and actually provide protection from those kind of constant diesel pollution or pollution from power plants that people would be breathing all the time.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right now we don't know what Stephen Johnson is actually going to propose at this point in time.

Janice Nolen: We don't know. We do know that he's formulating his decision because it has to go to OMB before he makes a final announcement of the proposed decision in December of this year. So we're not sure, but we know that they're making those final decisions now.

Darren Samuelsohn: They could propose several ideas as well here too and then take public comment on a range of ideas?

Janice Nolen: Exactly. EPA's staff recommended a range of different options and it's very possible that the administrator will have the same opportunity and make the same recommendation.

Darren Samuelsohn: Once these standards get announced and if they do decide to change them what kind of industries probably will need to change their habits and their pollution controls in order to comply?

Janice Nolen: Well at the Lung Association we like to say that everybody contributes to particle pollution and everybody has to clean it up. But some of the bigger sources that are problems are of course coal fired power plants, diesel pollution from boats, trucks and buses and off road diesel, things like tractors and bulldozers and generators. Those are two areas that have huge sources. We also are looking at things like industrial boilers and a range of other things that actually are producing this, the chemical reaction that leads to having particle pollution.

Darren Samuelsohn: Now you saw some modeling data that was released a couple of - about a week ago in San Diego. Some very preliminary stuff that came out of EPA and it's starting to look at what will we maybe see scenario wise in the next decade or so. Can you explain what you saw and how does this play into what Stephen Johnson is thinking about right now?

Janice Nolen: Well obviously EPA is looking at all the different options. And some of the analyses that they did looked at if you picked one number for the short term standard and one number for the annual standard, how would that play out in terms of what areas would be affected? What areas would not have air quality that met those standards? And when a couple of - the preliminary information that they showed us, if you looked at some of the standards there would be areas throughout the West, for example, that would fail to meet the standards. Regardless, pretty much, of any of these options. We're looking at a lot of areas in the West that have unhealthy air. And now we'll recognize that they have it and have to clean it up. In the eastern United States it's different a little because there are some measures that are in place, like CAIR, that are going to help to reduce some of those peaks especially. And with that they're expecting that there would be fewer areas - additional areas in the West with some of the options and more with others. They were looking at, as you play them out with all the things that are in place, what would we see in 2015, 2020? And one of the bottom line obvious numbers was that we were not cleaning up the air. That even what we've done so far is not going to result in the kind of clean air that we need with the new standards especially. It didn't with the current standards. So absolutely, when we know that more pollution is more dangerous, it's not going to be enough.

Darren Samuelsohn: When a new standard is set and the regulations go into place it's really not going to be something that this administration is really going to have the time to deal with. This is going to be something probably beyond 2008, where the specific controls are going to go in place. So it's sort of, is it the next presidential administration that will deal with this?

Janice Nolen: Actually part of it is. If they do agree to change the standard in 2006, which we hope they will, they have a couple of years to go through and decide which areas are non attainment. And then those areas have three years beyond that to actually reach the implementation. But some of the guidelines and the restrictions all hinge on what that standard is. And that's why it's so important. That's why we're so concerned about it, because that determines whether an area has to clean up or not. As we like to tell the people, the people's lungs are suffering. And the difference is whether the EPA and the federal government recognize that and set standards that we can clean up air pollution in those areas or not.

Darren Samuelsohn: I haven't heard much yet from industry about what their concerns are with this. And it's probably because we really haven't seen a proposal yet, but what do you anticipate will be industry's concerns as this thing goes forward?

Janice Nolen: Well I don't want to speak for industry. I will say that in the last go round in the late 1990s they were very vocal about their concerns. Some of which they took all the way to the Supreme Court and lost on some of those concerns. So I'm not sure which one they'll be addressing in this round.

Darren Samuelsohn: The last time through, in 1997, Congress got involved and they pushed to, I guess, delay the implementation of the EPA rules while the Supreme Court looked into this. Do you anticipate that Congress is probably going to poke their head into this issue at some point?

Janice Nolen: Well we've already seen Congress trying to take some steps about some of the control measures that are in place. For example with Katrina, some of the efforts that were made that we disagreed with about not cleaning up diesel pollution. Those are things that were designed to help reduce the burden and get areas closer to meeting clean air standards. So we expect that yes Congress may try to take some role in making it quote 'easier' for their communities to meet these standards. And unfortunately that means that people have to breathe dirtier air longer.

Darren Samuelsohn: What is it going to mean for the local communities in terms of what kind of things will they have to do specifically that the federal government can't do? In terms of trying to comply with what could be stronger standards.

Janice Nolen: Well it will be a real challenge. If we see no more federal initiatives, which we are opposed to - we would love to see some federal initiatives because some areas that the federal government is uniquely positioned to work in, then the locals are going to have to dig deep into local sources. And those may be tough because some of the sources of pollution, like power plants, may not be within their jurisdiction. And where the federal government can play that role is that they can put restrictions and ask for clean ups, as they have done with power plants and with diesel, that are uniform across the country. So that the locals have fewer things they have to do locally and can rely on those big sources being controlled on a national level.

Darren Samuelsohn: We had Katie McGinty here on the show a couple of months ago. She was talking about the 1997 standards and how following those they tried to move multi pollutant legislation through Congress. And that really didn't seem to get much ground. And in turn they ended up filing the Clean Air Act New Source Review lawsuits against the electric utility industry, which have been very controversial and have yielded some results, but not a lot of results at this point in time. Do you anticipate when EPA sets standards and if they change them again that the Bush administration might use that as a springboard to try and move their Clear Skies proposal?

Janice Nolen: Well we've seen them use that springboard, any springboard, to try to move Clear Skies. The Lung Association remains opposed to Clear Skies. The Clean Air Act, as it exists today, has been one of the most effective environmental and public health laws ever passed. And it's been that way because we enforce it. And the efforts to undermine it have been, we think, a serious problem for helping us to reach it. So yes we expect that to continue. We also expect that as responsible regulators EPA is going to have to look at what measures can be taken to help reach these goals. And that may mean more regulatory approaches like CAIR that have more depth and ask for more changes sooner. One of the things we've seen lately is the NOx SIP call that happened in the late 1990s that asked power plants to clean up is coming into effect. And we're seeing huge improvements in air quality across the country. CAIR, unfortunately, has followed the same path but is taking longer, so people are suffering longer. So it's clear they're going to have to do more.

Darren Samuelsohn: In your greatest scenario and what you would envision to be, if you had your druthers, what would you envision happening from a federal level? You've mentioned that you'd like to see some more federal programs like CAIR. Can you give me a sense, would you like to see enforcement cases against every single power plant in the country that might be allegedly in violation of the law?

Janice Nolen: The Lung Association would like to see the law enforced. And that's the Clean Air Act. And that means doing what they were starting to do with New Source Review that's gotten all gobbledygooped, following the law as it was planned and as it has worked. That's a good way to do it. And that includes regulatory approaches that can target specific elements that are not targeted now, like industrial boilers, like cement plants and other things. That committee that I was just on with EPA was recommending to EPA that they do that. That they take a look at those measures and actually enact some regulations on those. But enforcing the Clean Air Act has worked. It will continue to work and the only thing holding it up is political will that decides not to do that.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you see Congress looking into air pollution issues at all in the next three years while President Bush is in office in the second term?

Janice Nolen: We think there are a lot of people in Congress who - several people in Congress who would like to see the Clean Air Act open. Who would like to see rules changed and rules eased and they're taking advantage of opportunities like Katrina and hurricane damage to do that. So I would not be surprised to see additional effort like that in the future.

Darren Samuelsohn: So you've been playing the defensive primarily for the last couple of years it sounds like.

Janice Nolen: We have. And we have a good act to defend. It's got a good record. It's made a huge improvement in air quality across the country. We have a long way to go but we've got a tool that works.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK Ms. Nolen. We're out of time, but thank you so much for being on the show.

Janice Nolen: Thank you for inviting me.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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