EPA Refuses to Tighten Air Quality Standard, Overruling Agency Scientists’ Recommendation

Smokestacks in Texas                    Photo: David J. Phillip, AP via Center for American Progress

On Tuesday, the Trump administration proposed to leave in place the national ambient air quality standards for Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) or soot, even though the Agency’s science staff recommended tightening it, saying that a tougher standard would save 12,000 lives each year.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that the current standard is sufficiently protective, even though, as we have reported, a recent study suggests that poor and minority communities that are exposed to even minimally higher levels of PM pollution are at an increased risk of dying of COVID-19.

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 metAnd 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. 

Current Standard

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.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

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