WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday will announce it will maintain an air quality standard governing soot pollution for five years rather than tighten it as agency scientists had recommended, a move that will harm low-income communities that tend to be most exposed to the pollutant.
The agency is required to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards regulation, which sets limits on the concentrations of pollutants like soot from coal-fired power plants and vehicle tailpipes every five years, and has tended to tighten them regularly after scientific review.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency is preserving the current soot pollution standard of 12 millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air, at a virtual news briefing alongside Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, a coal-producing state.
He said on a press call on Monday that particulate matter concentrations have decreased across the country over the last few years, that levels were “well below those of many of our global competitors” and said the agency conducted the review process “earlier than initially anticipated.”
EPA staff scientists estimated the number of deaths from particulate matter emissions ranges from 16,000 to 17,000 annually. Wheeler said an outside advisory board disagreed with that estimate and that there “were uncertainties around the science,” which he said can be addressed in the next five-year review.
Since the EPA’s last review of particulate matter, new scientific research shows that even levels below the current standards cause serious health impacts. Wheeler said that new research that has emerged about the health impacts of particulate matter did not “come out in time for this five-year review process.”
New research also shows a link between COVID-19 mortality and exposure to particulate matter, said several state attorneys general, including Xavier Becerra of California, now a nominee to be president-elect Biden’s health secretary.
“On its way out the door, the Trump administration has refused to strengthen standards regulating particulate matter pollution despite a plethora of evidence showing its damaging effects on public health, particularly when coupled with a deadly respiratory pandemic,” Becerra said.
EPA scientists had recommended cutting the standard to 8 millionths of a gram.
The decision is one of several at the EPA that the outgoing Republican Trump administration is rushing to finalize ahead of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, including one setting new limits on ozone, another limiting the kinds of scientific data that can be used in policymaking and another making it harder to justify new pollution regulations.
Environmental groups had wanted the EPA to toughen the soot standards to protect public health.
Al Armendariz, director of federal campaigns at the Sierra Club and a former EPA regional administrator, said low-income, minority communities would “bear the brunt” of the decision but said it expects the incoming Biden administration to set the appropriate standard.
West Virginia’s senior deputy attorney general, Douglas Buffington, said the announcement “represents a big win for West Virginia coal” because if the standard had been tightened, “it could have been a huge blow to the coal industry.”
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Richard Valdmanis, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis
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