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Despite mounting research, EPA holds soot standards steady

Environmental and public health groups assailed the decision reached during a pandemic caused by a respiratory illness.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in May.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in May. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/POOL)

The EPA announced Monday that it will not tighten standards on soot pollution, bucking recommendations from career agency scientists and disregarding an emerging scientific link between dirty air and deaths from COVID-19.

Environmental and public health groups assailed the decision Monday, pointing out the move came during a global pandemic caused by a respiratory illness. Soot pollution comes from factories, power plants, burning wood, vehicles, coal power and other sources.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler telegraphed the move in April when he said the agency would leave in place its 2012 standards on so-called particulate matter of a specific type — PM 2.5, named for tiny particles or droplets 2.5 microns or less in width — overriding recommendations from nonpartisan EPA officials and independent health experts. (One micron is an infinitesimal fraction of an inch.)

Wheeler said then, in a contentious call with reporters, that there was uncertainty in the research surrounding particulate matter, broadly called soot pollution.

“I’m saying that there’s still a lot of uncertainties and that we believe that the current level that was set by the Obama administration is protective of public health,” Wheeler said in the spring. “We believe that this threshold is protective based on the scientific data that we have.”

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Independent experts and public health groups say the decision to retain the Obama-era standards does not hew to the latest science and would lead to more premature deaths.

The EPA decision sets fine particle emissions for another five years. Agency scientists at EPA recommended in a report from September 2019 that the standard be lowered to between 8 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter, arguing that change could save more than 12,000 lives annually.

Active standards cap annual concentrations of soot to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, though emissions on some days are allowed to exceed that threshold. 

‘Some scientists’

Asked about that conclusion Monday, Wheeler said it was the view of “some scientists” at EPA, pointing reporters instead to the views of the Clean Air Scientific Scientific Advisory Committee, an agency panel chaired by an industry consultant during the PM review process. 

Peer-reviewed studies have repeatedly found the current soot standards are deadly. Researchers in one study, published in April 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found human-made PM pollution “was responsible for” 107,000 early deaths in 2011 at a societal cost of  $886 billion. 

Another report, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2017, found PM emissions hurt low-income and Black and brown Americans harder than others.

The authors of that research drew on more than 60 million Medicare patients’ records and figures from 2000 through 2012, finding human health was at risk when national soot pollution rules were not met. “This effect was most pronounced among self-identified racial minorities and people with low income,” the authors wrote.

David Baron, managing attorney at the Washington, D.C., office of Earthjustice, an environmental group, said the effect of not tightening the standards was immense.

“It’s the difference between saving thousands of lives,” Baron said by phone. “This is a travesty,” he said. “There’s overwhelming new science that shows this pollution is dangerous to people.” 

Two federal courts have ruled the CASAC, the committee at EPA with industry ties, was established illegally, Baron said. The committee has stated publicly it did not have the background to assess the soot standards, he said. “This committee was not qualified,” Baron said. 

Under Wheeler, EPA dismissed university researchers and scientists from CASAC in 2018. Fired from the advisory panel, they later reconstituted an unofficial advisory group outside the agency, and in June criticized the idea of maintaining the 2012 standards. 

“We unequivocally and unanimously concluded that the current PM2.5 standards do not adequately protect public health,” they wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Wheeler had planned to make the announcement from Charleston, W.V., but has self-isolated after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Gov. Jim Justice, R-W.V., and Rep. Alex X. Mooney, R-W.V., joined Wheeler Monday, touting the EPA’s decision not to strengthen the standards.

“A million, trillion congratulations to you,” said Justice, a vocal ally of the Trump administration. “I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

‘EPA’s progress’

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., said in a statement: “Finalizing and maintaining the proposed particulate matter standard is a critical step in cementing EPA’s progress under President Trump and providing the certainty our communities and businesses need for economic development.”

Particulate matter and soot can lodge in the lungs and bloodstream. It is linked to heart attacks, asthma, lung cancer, strokes and other respiratory issues.

“Stronger particle pollution standards are a vital tool for not only reducing dangerous air pollution, but also addressing climate change,” Harold Wimmer, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement.

Limiting the annual particulate matter standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter could save between roughly 9,000 and 34,000 years annually, according to the draft report. 

Wimmer urged the incoming Biden administration to strengthen the standards on soot pollution. Experts say soot pollution affects low-income and non-white communities disproportionately.

“As evidence mounts that air pollution and adverse COVID-19 outcomes are linked, and as people of color continue to suffer disproportionate COVID-19 death rates, President-elect Biden needs to make slashing particle pollution a top priority,” Wimmer said.

A Harvard University study published in April found a minor increase in PM emissions could lead to a long-term 15-percent increase in the mortality rate from COVID-19.

Industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have widely opposed tightening the soot rules. 

The House voted this summer 233-176 to adopt an amendment from several Democrats that would cut off funding for the EPA to finish and implement the soot regulation. That provision has not been taken up in the Senate.

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