All eyes turn to EPA with major air standards due this week

Source: Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Public health advocates, industry groups and lawmakers this week are anxiously waiting to see whether U.S. EPA will finalize major new air standards for small particles that come from power plants, boilers and car tailpipes.

The agency faces a court-ordered deadline of Friday to set new national ambient air quality standards, or NAAQS, for fine particles, also referred to as PM 2.5 or soot.

EPA sent the final proposal to the White House for review last week and said it expects to complete the standards this week (E&ENews PM, Dec. 4).

The decision will be closely watched for signs of where U.S. EPA is heading in President Obama’s second term.

“It’s an opportunity for the Obama administration to distinguish itself on a clean air issue. The Bush administration completely bungled this,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “It’s a chance to start fresh and do it right.”

The soot standard has been among the biggest public health fights facing EPA. Advocates say the current standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year significantly falls short of what is needed to prevent health problems. They point to research suggesting that fine particles are particularly harmful because they get lodged deep in the lungs.

President George W. Bush set a standard in 2006 that was tossed out by a federal court three years later. EPA set an October 2011 deadline for a new standard, but when that slid by, public health groups including the American Lung Association and several states sued the agency.

EPA has proposed tightening the standard to between 12 and 13 micrograms and is accepting public comments on a standard as low as 11, which is the preference of public health advocates (Greenwire, June 15).

Nine state attorneys general last week urged the White House to set the standard at 12 micrograms.

“Everyday, particulate matter pollution threatens the health of more than one-third of our nation’s population — particularly our most vulnerable: children, the elderly and the sick,” they wrote in a letter to Boris Bershteyn, acting administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. “For this reason, we urge you to support EPA’s timely adoption of particulate matter standards that fully meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.”

The standards are also being closely monitored by industry and Capitol Hill, which has urged the agency to keep the current standard.

Forty-seven members of the House, mostly Republicans and a few Democrats, recently asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to retain the current 15 micrograms standard. Local authorities, they argued, are making progress in implementing that standard, and PM 2.5 emissions have been cut in half in the last 10 years. Lowering the standards, they said, would have “immediate, substantial, and long-lasting economic consequences.”

“We believe that the agency should not force stringent new NAAQS too quickly,” the lawmakers, led by Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Latta, wrote in a letter. “Doing so will hurt counties and states — many still implementing the current PM. 2.5 NAAQS — struggling to move out of challenging economic conditions.”

Advocates are also closely watching EPA’s decision; the safe bet, O’Donnell said, is 12 micrograms.

“That would fall short of what the health groups have called for, but I don’t think you’d [see] an attack from the public health side. I don’t think I would give them an A-plus on that, but it would be a high pass.”

If EPA sets the standard at 13 micrograms, it would face significant backlash from health groups, O’Donnell said.

And despite this week’s deadline, some public health advocates remain slightly concerned the EPA could stall. O’Donnell, for example, said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

One possibility is that EPA could sign the final standards Friday night, then announce them Monday.

Paul Billings of the American Lung Association said that although there are good reasons for concern, he “fully expects” EPA to finalize the standards this week.

“People’s skepticism is the result of lots of experience, and you rarely lose money in this town betting things will take longer than they are supposed to,” he said. “However we are parties to a consent agreement that has been approved by the court … and we don’t think that they want to violate that agreement.”