Energy & Environment

EPA retains Obama-era air quality standards despite staff questions of adequacy

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to make no changes to certain air quality standards even though members of its staff raised questions about whether one of the standards is adequate. 

The agency on Tuesday proposed keeping the maximum acceptable levels of both fine and coarse forms of a pollutant known as particulate matter at Obama-era levels. 

Assessments have linked long-term exposure to fine particulate matter to as many as 52,100 premature deaths and suggested that stricter standards could save thousands of lives. 

Particulate matter includes substances such as dust, dirt, soot and smoke and has been linked to heart and lung issues, according to the agency

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters that the decision to retain the standard was made with the consideration of scientific evidence and analysis.

“We believe that the current standard is protective of public health,” he said. 

Critics on Monday blasted the EPA’s decision, saying the agency should have tightened the standards. 

“This administration is passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans—choosing instead to do nothing. That’s indefensible—especially amid a health crisis that is hitting people who live in communities with high levels of air pollution the hardest,” said a statement from Gina McCarthy, who led the agency under the Obama administration.

Members of the EPA staff said in January that new evidence has been “calling into question” whether the standard for fine particulate matter is adequate. 

“A conclusion that the current primary [fine particulate matter] standards do provide adequate public health protection would place little weight on the broad body of epidemiologic evidence reporting generally positive and statistically significant health effect associations,” they wrote. 

Wheeler, however, said that such evidence contained “uncertainties” including a lack of certain evidence, possible bias and error and other limitations. 

The announcement comes on the heels of a Harvard study that determined that people who lived in areas with more exposure to fine particulate matter are more likely to die from the coronavirus pandemic.  

Paul Billings, the American Lung Association’s senior vice president for advocacy, told The Hill that while the current pandemic “sharpens the focus” of particle pollution impacts, there had previously been “an overwhelming body of data that indicated that particle pollution is harmful at levels well-below the standard that EPA is proposing.”

“Particulate pollution, often referred to as soot, is perhaps the most lethal pollutant in the air that we breathe,” Billings said.

Critics also raised procedural objections, namely the EPA’s 2018 decision to fire scientists that helped the agency review its air quality standards.

“It’s not just a bad result, it’s a fouled process that led to the result,” said Joseph Goffman, an Obama administration EPA official who is now the executive director of Harvard Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

Wheeler told reporters Tuesday that he expects the standards to be finalized by December.

“The United States has some of the cleanest air in the world and we’re going to keep it that way,” he said.

Billings, however expressed concern about the proposal’s timeline, saying that many lung experts who may want to weigh in on the standards are preoccupied with fighting the coronavirus.

“The community of experts who know the most about these topics are very busy and rightfully distracted so we’re very concerned about this public comment period and the schedule that’s being unveiled and the ability of experts to provide input,” he said.

Updated 3:40 p.m.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Coronavirus EPA Gina McCarthy pollutants Pollution

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