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Why This Matters: Industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce “cheered” the decision saying the air in the U.S. is clean enough. Meanwhile, there are parts of the country — Southern California and Pennsylvania — where the current standard is not being met. And there is evidence that despite lower activity levels all over the U.S., PM pollution has worsened in certain areas like Houston with many refineries and chemical manufacturing plants taking advantage of EPA’s relaxation of monitoring and enforcement actions due to COVID-19.
The current PM2.5 annual air quality requirement was 12 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013 and a review that began in 2018, the EPA staff scientists recommended it be lowered to between 8 and 10. The Agency’s external science advisory board was split on the issue but they have a controversial history since the independent scientists who used to be on the board were fired and replaced with Trump loyalists. The Union of Concerned Scientists gathered the fired advisory board scientists for a meeting last fall and they wrote the EPA a nearly 200-page letter laying out whey they agreed with the 8-10 micrograms recommendations made by the EPA staff. Once adopted, this PM 2.5 standard will not be reviewed again until 2023 at the earliest.
Why Tighten the Standard?
As The Post explained, PM2.5 is emitted from all kinds of sources including smokestacks, vehicles, industrial operations, incinerators, and from burning wood stoves and they are damaging because absorbing them into the lungs and bloodstream causes inflammation that can lead to asthma, heart attacks, and other health issues. Moreover, the Union of Concerned Scientists did a study in 2019 that showed that on average, minority communities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.
Critics decried both the process and the substance of the EPA’s proposed decision. “It’s not just a bad result, it’s a fouled process that led to the result,” said Joseph Goffman, a former EPA official who is now at Harvard Law. And Heather McTeer Toney, a former mayor of a majority African American community in Mississippi and the National Field Director of the Moms Clean Air Force said that when the agency lowers the air quality standard and stops enforcing it altogether in the midst of the pandemic it is “a death sentence to communities at the front lines of pollution.”
What You Can Do: Send the EPA your comments on this proposal by email: a-and-r-Docket@epa.gov. Include the Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2015-0072 in the subject line of the message.
As the Biden administration is readying a reversal of the Trump policies loosening rules on auto emissions, many states have started tightening their laws to align with the California clean car standards. Case in point: the Virginia legislature last week passed a law that toughened its emissions standards.
Gas flaring was responsible for Texas’s recent increase in oil refinery pollution, but it’s hardly a new problem. We’re less than a decade away from the UN’s goal of Zero Routine Flaring by 2030, but refineries still flare 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year, releasing 400 million tons of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Why This Matters: Companies have historically practiced gas flaring as a convenient and inexpensive way to “dispose of ” gas that was extracted alongside oil, as opposed to storing paying to store it.
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