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Fighting Soot In The Air

Clean Air: EPA tightens rules for fine-particle pollution; industry cries foul

by Glenn Hess
December 24, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 52

Credit: Shutterstock
Smoke stacks
Credit: Shutterstock

In the name of public health, the Environmental Protection Agency significantly tightened restrictions on soot and other fine-particle pollution emitted by power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities. The agency has essentially hit the reset button on the U.S. air quality standard for this type of pollution, lowering the limit from 15 μg per m3 to 12 μg per m3.

By “fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson says, “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.”

But industry groups say the more stringent standard isn’t needed because the existing standard, set in 1997, has led to major reductions in fine-particle pollution.

“EPA’s new rule is unnecessary and could drive up costs for new and expanding businesses trying to hire employees,” says Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s main trade association.

“There is no compelling scientific evidence for the policy decision to develop more stringent standards. The existing standards are working and will continue improving air quality,” Feldman asserts. With current control measures, he says, particulate pollution could be reduced by more than 20% in the next couple of years.

Environmental activists and public health advocates praised the agency’s action.

“EPA’s long-awaited standards for soot are an important win for the American people and our environment,” says John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “By strengthening the standards for soot, metals, and other pollution, the EPA is doing its job under the Clean Air Act to protect Americans from dangerous air pollution.”

Fine-particle pollution can penetrate deep into the lungs and has been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart attacks and strokes, as well as acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children.

EPA estimates the health benefits of the revised standard will result in cost savings that range from $4 billion to more than $9 billion per year. The estimated implementation costs for the tightened rule range from $53 million to $350 million.



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