Energy & Environment

Democrats slam EPA proposal not to tighten air quality standards

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The offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

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 Wheeler 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 Hassan (D-N.H.), and its signatories include Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (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Wheeler had noted Tuesday that the Harvard study had not yet been peer-reviewed and expressed skepticism about the timeline under which it was conducted.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 Carper (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 McCarthy, 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 Bishop (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.

Tags Air pollution Air quality Andrew Wheeler Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Elizabeth Warren Environmental Protection Agency EPA Gina McCarthy Maggie Hassan Rob Bishop Tom Carper
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