EPA Announces Next Round of Clean Air Standards to Reduce Harmful Soot

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Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant on the Locust Fork River emits more mercury into the air than any other power plant in the country. It is also a source of fine particulate pollution and ozone.

By Glynn Wilson

In response to a federal court order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday it has finalized an update to its national air quality standards for harmful fine particle pollution including soot.

The policy announcement sets the annual health standard for soot at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The announcement has no effect on the existing daily standard for fine particles or the existing daily standard for coarse particles, which includes dust from farms and other sources, both of which remain unchanged.

“These standards are fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in the announcement. “We will save lives and reduce the burden of illness in our communities, and families across the country will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air.”

Fine particle pollution can penetrate deep into the lungs and has been linked to a wide range of serious health effects, including premature death, heart attacks and strokes, as well as acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children.

A federal court required EPA to issue final standard by December 14, because the agency did not meet its five-year legal deadline for reviewing the standards under the Clean Air Act. The court ruling required EPA to update the standard based on best available science. Friday’s announcement, which EPA says meets that requirement, builds on smart steps already taken by EPA to slash dangerous pollution in communities across the country.

“Thanks to these steps, 99 percent of U.S. counties are projected to meet the standard without any additional action,” Jackson said.

“This is the best holiday gift EPA could give breathers — the gift of cleaner air and better health,” said Frank O’Donnell with Clean Air Watch. “Today’s decision is nothing short of historic. It is the first time EPA has ever tightened the critical long-term soot standard first set 15 years ago.”

“We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe. Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it,” said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association. “By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant. Reducing particle pollution will prevent heart attacks and asthma attacks, and will keep children out of the emergency room and hospitals. It will save lives.”

By 2020, 99 percent of U.S. counties are projected to meet revised health standard without any additional actions, according to EPA’s release. It is expected that fewer than 10 counties, out of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, will need to consider any local actions to reduce fine particle pollution in order to meet the new standard by 2020, as required by the Clean Air Act. The rest can rely on air quality improvements from federal rules already on the books to meet this new standard.

The standard, which was proposed in June and is consistent with the advice from the agency’s independent science advisors, is based on an extensive body of scientific evidence that includes thousands of studies, including many large studies which show negative health impacts at lower levels than previously understood. It also follows extensive consultation with stakeholders, including the public, health organizations and industry, and after considering more than 230,000 public comments.

By 2030, it is expected that all standards that cut PM2.5 from diesel vehicles and equipment alone will prevent up to 40,000 premature deaths, 32,000 hospital admissions and 4.7 million days of work lost due to illness.

Because reductions in fine particle pollution have direct health benefits including decreased mortality rates, fewer incidents of heart attacks, strokes and childhood asthma, the PM2.5 standards announced today have major economic benefits with comparatively low costs, according to EPA, which estimates health benefits of the revised standard to range from $4 billion to over $9 billion per year.

Estimated costs of implementation range from $53 million to $350 million, which will mostly hit operators of coal-fired power plants, including Southern Company’s Alabama Power. But it will also mean more high paying jobs for pipefitting unions such as UA Local 91 in Birmingham. The highly trained, skilled workers will be called upon to install any new pollution control equipment that is required, or to build any new power plants.

While EPA cannot consider costs in selecting a standard under the Clean Air Act according to the law, those costs are estimated as part of the careful analysis undertaken for all significant regulations as required by Executive Order 13563 issued by President Obama in January 2011.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review its air quality standards every five years to determine whether the standards should be revised. The law requires the agency to ensure the standards are “requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety” and “requisite to protect the public welfare.”

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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