Democrats slam EPA proposal not to tighten air quality standards

Democrats slam EPA proposal not to tighten air quality standards
© Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists are criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed decision to retain Obama-era air quality standards, saying the standards should be tightened. 

The EPA on Tuesday proposed keeping the maximum acceptable levels of both fine and coarse forms of a pollutant known as particulate matter, which has been linked to heart and lung issues, at Obama-era levels, despite worries from some agency staff members. 

A group of 18 senators wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training Democrats question EPA postponement of environmental inequality training OVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right MORE expressing concerns about the decision. 


“Today, EPA announced its decision to maintain current national ambient air quality standards that EPA’s own scientists say fail to protect public health – and that research links with higher COVID-19 mortality,” they wrote. 

“The Environmental Protection Agency should be taking actions that will further protect health during this crisis, not put more Americans at risk,” the senators added. 

The letter was led by Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanDemocrats step up hardball tactics as Supreme Court fight heats up Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-N.H.), and its signatories include Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Dwayne Johnson backs Biden in first public presidential endorsement Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE (D-Calif.). 

The letter also referenced a recent Harvard study that linked greater exposure to fine particulate matter to a higher risk of dying from the coronavirus.

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement that the Harvard study has been "used to draw false conclusions" about the proposal and defended the agency's action. 

"By locking in the standards at the current level, the Trump Administration is once again reaffirming its commitment to protecting the health and safety of the American people, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesperson said.


Wheeler had noted Tuesday that the Harvard study had not yet been peer-reviewed and expressed skepticism about the timeline under which it was conducted. 

He also said he believed the current standards are “protective of public health” and will keep U.S. air clean.  

Wheeler has said that he expects the proposed standards to be finalized by December. 

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperThe conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons Democrat asks for probe of EPA's use of politically appointed lawyers Overnight Energy: Study links coronavirus mortality to air pollution exposure | Low-income, minority households pay more for utilities: report MORE (D-Del.), who had signed on to the letter to Wheeler, also released his own statement saying that the agency is “choosing polluters over public health.”

“What should be painfully obvious to all of us right now is that the cost of protecting public health is far less than the cost of breathing polluted air,” said Carper, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “This EPA is demonstrating a dangerous level of willful ignorance whose cost will be measured in people left unprotected and, ultimately, lives lost.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) also criticized the proposal on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the decision not to strengthen the standards is “an insult, both to Americans and to all that EPA stands for.”

“In case the Administrator hasn’t noticed, we are in the depths of a pandemic — one which preys on those with respiratory illnesses, and which has shown to be even more dangerous and deadly for communities with long-term exposure to fine particle pollution,” he said. “Today’s announcement is a callous refusal to fulfill EPA’s duty to protect human health and the environment, and yet another failure of leadership from the Trump Administration. The health and lives of more Americans will be needlessly put at risk because of it.”

Obama-era EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyFormer EPA chiefs endorse Biden, criticize agency direction under Trump OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Energy Department proposes showerhead standards rollback after Trump complaints | Interior memo scaling back bird protections is 'contrary to law,' court rules | Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' MORE, who now leads the Natural Resources Defense Council, also bashed the decision, saying that “this administration is passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans — choosing instead to do nothing.”

Many Republicans and industry groups praised the decision. 

“The United States is a world leader in growing our economy while simultaneously improving air quality,” said a statement from Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver House passes sweeping clean energy bill OVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right MORE (R-Utah), the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee. “EPA’s decision to maintain the current National Particulate Matter Standards reflects this fact.”

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical companies, similarly said in a statement that “with air quality improving, EPA’s decision will enable further environmental progress under the current standards and emissions controls.”

And Frank Macchiarola, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the proposal “is a smart balance that will further reduce emissions and help protect public health while meeting America’s energy needs.”

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. 

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.