EPA Retains Soot Standard, Pollutant Playing Part in 50,000 Premature Deaths Annually

Tom Johnson | April 15, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Critics question how Trump administration can stand pat on fine particulate matter during pandemic causing life-threatening respiratory problems
Credit: Patrick Hendry via Unsplash

The federal Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced that it plans to retain a disputed air-quality standard for one of the country’s most dangerous pollutants, fine particulate matter or soot.

In retaining the current Obama-era standard, the agency is proposing to stand pat on a standard that leads to more than 50,000 premature deaths each year, caused by the tiny particles of harmful soot spewed by power plants, factories and vehicles.

The extension of the existing rule followed review and consideration of the most current available scientific evidence and risk and exposure information and with consultation by the agency’s independent science advisers.

“The U.S. has made incredible strides in reducing particulate matter concentrations across the nation,’’ said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. “Based on review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisories, we are proposing to retain existing PM standards, which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment.’’

Soot kills

But public health experts disputed that assessment, arguing the agency’s own research suggests tens of thousands are dying prematurely due to exposure to microscopic particles of soot that contribute to heart disease and respiratory ailments.

“The current soot standard isn’t working,’’ said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. EPA scientists say more than 12,000 lives could be saved every year by strengthening the national limits for soot.

New Jersey’s air quality often is degraded by pollution from soot — as it is by many other priority pollutants identified by the agency — although the state came into compliance with federal air quality standards for fine particulate matter six years ago.

Nevertheless, the state Department of Environmental Protection adopted stricter rules, requiring thousands of facilities to use best-available pollution-control technologies to tighten emissions from plants. It did the same with businesses seeking new permits in the fall of 2017.

Is Trump ignoring scientific evidence?

“This is another clear indication of the Trump administration ignoring scientific data,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Particulate matter is a deadly trigger for public health problems, like cardiac arrest, respiratory ailments and premature death,’’ he said.

The move to retain the standard drew praise from Republicans. “Our air quality has improved under the current standards, and we can continue to make progress without imposing costly new burdens on the energy and manufacturing sectors,’’ said Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from the 9th District in Virginia.

But the timing of the announcement coming in the midst of a public health pandemic causing life-threatening respiratory problems rankled critics.

“This administration is passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans — choosing to do nothing,’’ McCarthy said. “That’s indefensible — especially amid a health crisis that is hitting people who live in communities with high levels of air pollution the hardest.’’

Earlier this month, Harvard University released a study that found that heart and lung problems caused by breathing dirty air are making many Americans more likely to die from COVID-19.

“The EPA is being irresponsible by not setting stronger standards, especially in the middle of a public health emergency,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.