“These are not just numbers or abstract concepts,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a teleconference with reporters. “Families across the country will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air.”
The new rule is a result of a 2009 court ruling that said the EPA standards for the amount of soot permissible in the air on an annual average ignored the advice of scientific advisers by maintaining the standard established in 1997 and must be rewritten. That limit was 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air; on Friday, the EPA cut the level to 12 micrograms.
Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, said the scientific community has realized only in the past decade or two that soot poses such serious risks.
“What’s amazing is the more we look, the more we find,” Edelman said, adding that although public health groups had urged the EPA to set the limit at 11 micrograms, “Let’s be frank, this kind of progress needs to be made incrementally.”
The soot rule “is among the most critical standards that EPA could set” because it triggers a series of measures that local governments must take or risk facing federal penalties, said Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell.
The rule is significant because once areas are found to be in violation, it becomes harder for new pollution sources, such as industrial facilities and power plants, to get operating permits. While the federal government offers several incentives to cut soot — such as money to phase out dirty diesel school buses — funding for these initiatives is in short supply.
The agency will determine which areas are out of attainment in 2014, and these communities will then have six years to comply. The EPA estimates that 66 of the nation’s 3,033 counties will be found in violation of the new standard. It projects seven — all in California — will still be out of compliance by 2020.
Air concentrations of soot can vary widely. In the Liberty-
Clairton neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the annual average is 15 micrograms per cubic meter; in more bucolic Harrisonburg, Va., near Shenandoah National Park, it averages 10.2. An estimated 17.3 million Americans are living in areas that don’t meet the soot standard of 15.
The EPA issued a draft rule in June and faced a court-ordered deadline of Dec. 14 to finalize it. The agency picked the more stringent standard of the choices laid out in the draft rule. The agency soon is likely to finalize another air pollution rule, the first carbon standard for new power plants.