EPA tightens soot standard

Posted Dec. 14, 2012, at 8:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The United States tightened standards for soot pollution by 20 percent, a move that health groups said would curb heart attacks and asthma.

In the first major environmental regulation since the re-election of President Barack Obama, the EPA rejected requests from industry groups that sought to weaken or delay the proposed changes. Public health advocates say soot, called fine particulate matter, is among the deadliest contaminants, and pressed the agency in court to issue these rules.

The EPA action “will prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and will keep children out of the emergency room and hospitals,” Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, said in a statement. “It will save lives.”

The annual standards for particulate matter, the microscopic particles released from automobile exhausts, power plants or factories, will be set at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 15 micrograms now, the EPA said in its announcement. It kept in place 15-year-old standards for a daily limit of 35 micrograms on fine particle pollution, and for larger particles, which critics of the agency had dubbed “farm dust.”

The EPA said the standards would largely be met because of a series of other rules issued over the past decade on diesel fuel, coal-fired power plants and aircraft engines, and so the cost to industry would be negligible.

“All of those other efforts aimed at particulates is making a difference,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters. “In the vast majority of our counties, these standards will require no additional” actions, she said.

The EPA estimates the annual cost of meeting the standards will be as much as $350 million. Projected health savings will be $4 billion to $9.1 billion by 2020, Jackson said.

The standards will be phased in starting December 2014. They set annual targets for counties, and separate state plans must be implemented on specific industries or fuels to help them meet the cap. The EPA said that 66 counties don’t meet the 12 micrograms standard today, but because of separate regulations only seven counties in California likely won’t comply in 2020, when the rule is fully phased in.

In the lead up to Friday’s announcement, trade groups for refiners, power plants and manufacturers asked the White House to delay or back off on the standards. The rules could curb industrial activity because they will impose cumbersome permitting requirements on factories, refineries or fuels, according to Howard Feldman, the top science adviser to the American Petroleum Institute.

In addition, changes to the way the soot pollution is monitored, by shifting air monitors to roadsides and closer to the exhaust from automobiles, could lead to an even lower de facto standard, he said. And the EPA has more regulations in the works.

“We fear this new rule may be just the beginning of a ‘regulatory cliff’” of further regulation, Feldman said in a statement. “It makes no sense to risk economic harm when the public health necessity of these regulations is ambiguous at best.”

Republicans in Congress have taken aim at EPA Clean Air Act measures issued over the past year, voting more than a dozen times to try to undo stricter protections. Each of those attempts died in the Senate. Environmentalists said they are girding for a similar fight over the new standards.

The Sierra Club is “ready to join the administration in vigorously defending the stronger soot limits from congressional attacks that would seek to roll back this victory for public health,” Michael Brune, the group’s president, said in a statement.

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