EPA toughens soot standards

Source: Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012

U.S. EPA today significantly tightened air standards for fine particles that come from auto tailpipes, power plants, drilling operations and boilers, granting public health advocates a victory and rebuffing industry efforts to leave the current standards in place.

EPA finalized new national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for fine particles, or PM2.5 and soot, lowering the limit from 15 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year to 12 micrograms. EPA’s current soot standards were set in 1997.

The soot standards were forced by today’s court-ordered deadline and were closely watched as EPA’s first major action since President Obama won a second term.

And they immediately drew praise from environmentalists and health advocates.

“This is nothing short of historic,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “This is the first time in 15 years that EPA has tightened the very critical long-term standard for particle soot.”

EPA said when it proposed the rule in June that more than 90 percent of the country would be able to comply with a 12-microgram standard without any additional actions because of other EPA rules that will go into effect during that time span.

Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies said EPA has identified 66 counties that will violate the 12-microgram standard.

“Those will be counting on some strong federal control measures to meet attainment by their deadlines,” he said.

EPA didn’t make any revisions to the 24-hour fine particle standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, advocates said, which is what the agency proposed in June. Public health groups had called for tightening that standard as well.

EPA said the 12 micrograms standards will provide health benefits worth $4 billion to $9.1 billion by 2010. For every dollar invested in pollution reduction, EPA said, the country will reap a returns of $12 to $171 in health benefits.

The estimated annual costs of implementing the rule is between $53 million to $350 million.

Particulate matter is a mixture of droplets and solid particles of metals, chemicals and smoke. It comes from a variety of sources, including coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, dirty diesel engines and wood stoves.

Public health advocates for years have fought to tighten the standards. They are among the most harmful pollutants, they argue, pointing to studies showing that even low emissions can lead to health effects. The small particles are particularly insidious because they penetrate deeply into the lungs and even the bloodstream, leading to serious respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including nonfatal heart attacks and chronic respiratory disease.

Vulnerable populations are particularly at risk, EPA has said, including children and the elderly, and PM2.5 emissions also contribute to haze at national parks.

In 2006, President George W. Bush’s EPA let the 1997 standard remain in effect, despite recommendations from the agency’s science advisers that it was insufficient to protect public health. The standard was thrown out by a federal court three years later, and EPA set an October 2011 deadline for new regulations.

When the agency missed the deadline, several states and public health groups — led by the American Lung Association and National Parks Conservation Association — brought a lawsuit to force action.

Norman Edelman, the American Lung Association’s chief medical officer, applauded the new standards.

“We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe,” he said in a statement. “By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant.”

Industry concerns

The 12-microgram standard was widely anticipated this week. In June, EPA sent a proposal to the White House calling for that level, but White House officials reportedly changed the document to between 12 and 13 micrograms. The agency also took public comment on a standard as low as 11 micrograms, which public health advocates would have preferred.

As one of the first major EPA actions since the president won re-election, it was also closely watched for signs of how aggressive the agency would be in Obama’s second term.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and industry strongly urged EPA to leave the 15-microgram standard in place (Greenwire, Dec. 13). Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute said the standard is unnecessary because soot levels have already dropped by more than a quarter in the past 10 years with the current standard.

He also said this could be the beginning of many EPA regulations that pose a risk to the economy, even though EPA is forbidden from considering costs when setting Clean Air Act standards.

“This rule could be the beginning of what we’d call a regulatory cliff, with rules coming right behind it,” Feldman said. “That’s our main concern.”

Others said the White House was forced to review the regulation too quickly because of today’s court-ordered deadline.

“It really is a shame that the review process has been so truncated for a standard that is this important,” said Jeff Holmstead of Bracewell & Giuliani, the EPA air chief under Bush.

Feldman also expressed concerns about a new roadside monitoring requirement that he said will “accentuate the stringency of the standards.”

Not so, said Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. He said EPA is phasing in a similar program to what the agency has used for other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, or NOx. The agency is requiring monitors for all metropolitan areas with a population of about 1 million or more. That means about 52 monitors, Becker said, starting with areas of 2.5 million people or more by 2015 and the rest by 2017.

“We don’t see this as a strengthening of the standards, but rather as a necessary component of collecting data to ensure compliance with the NAAQS,” Becker said. “They are doing exactly what they should be doing with this standard, and for that they should get support.”

Becker added that the next step is to monitor state implementation.

“One important aspect,” he said, “is to ensure that EPA follows through with the necessary regulatory and financial tools to help states meet this very important stanard.”