Energy & Environment

EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declined to tighten air quality standards for the pollutant soot despite studies showing stricter standards could save thousands of lives. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced during a virtual press conference Monday the agency would retain current air quality standards for both fine and coarse forms of particulate matter (PM), which is commonly known as soot. 

The EPA in April proposed keeping the current standards despite staff questioning whether they were adequate.

Findings reviewed by the agency have linked long-term exposure to fine particle pollution to as many as 52,100 premature deaths and suggested that stricter standards could save thousands of people. 

In particular, particulate matter has been linked to heart and lung issues, according to the agency. 

The current standards were put forth by the Obama administration in 2012 and limits particulate matter in the air to 12 micrograms per cubic meter, which was tighter than a previous standard. 

“We believe that the current standard is protective of public health,” Wheeler said at the time that retaining the Obama-era standard was proposed. 

However, in January, EPA staff concluded that scientific evidence and air quality analyses “can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current … standards” for fine particulate matter.

“A conclusion that the current … 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. 

Asked on Monday why he didn’t impose stricter standards despite calls from staffers, Wheeler pointed to the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which had a split decision about whether to keep the previous standard. 

“Overall CASAC said to retain the standard,” he said. 

However, in 2018, Wheeler disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel, a group that was supposed to help review the standards and was part of CASAC. 

In recent months, studies have also linked higher exposure to pollution to worse coronavirus outcomes. 

Clean air advocates raised opposition to Monday’s decision, saying the EPA should have adopted stricter standards. 

“More people will die because we are continuing to expose individuals to elevated levels of pollution,” Paul Billings, the senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, told The Hill. 

“People of color [and] people of low income already bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to PM pollution and so by failing to set a more protective standard, these communities are going to continue to suffer disproportionate impacts,” Billings added.

News outlets including The Washington Post previously reported that the EPA’s decision would be announced Monday.

Wheeler said Monday that he is confident the final decision will be published in the federal register before Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office, and also said he anticipates that a proposed rule that would similarly decline to tighten standards for smog pollution would be completed by then as well. 

“We had that one to finish a few weeks after the PM [standard],” he said of the smog standard. “I expect both of them will be finished and wrapped up and go to the federal register for printing.”

–Updated at 4:42 p.m.

Tags Air pollution Andrew Wheeler Joe Biden Particulate pollution soot United States Environmental Protection Agency
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