About one-third of all Americans -- including residents of the District of Columbia, large swaths of Maryland and much of northern Virginia -- live in areas with dangerous levels of soot pollution in the air, Environmental Protection Agency officials said yesterday.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said yesterday's designations -- which will require 20 states and the District to devise strategies within three years to reduce the level of tiny air particles linked to respiratory illness and premature death -- show that the administration is making progress in protecting public health.
"This is not a story about the air getting dirtier; this is a story about higher and more stringent standards and healthier air," Leavitt said. He added that, as of 2003, the average concentration of fine particles in the air nationwide had declined 10 percent since 1999, when the EPA began monitoring it. America's air, he said, is "cleaner than anytime in memory, but we're not done yet."
Yesterday's listing identified communities that do not meet the national air quality standard -- established in 1997 under legal pressure from environmentalists -- for particles that are about one-thirtieth the width of an average human hair. This pollution, mainly soot from power plants, automobiles, forest fires and heavy-duty diesel engines, can penetrate the lungs and exacerbate respiratory and heart diseases.
EPA officials estimate that if most of the 224 targeted counties and the District can meet the new standard by 2010, at least 15,000 premature deaths would be prevented, along with 75,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and 3.1 million days of missed work.
John Bachmann, associate director for science and policy in the EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, called fine particles "the most important pollution we have." He said the benefits of reducing it outweigh the cost by 20 to 1.
On the East Coast and in the Midwest, most communities failing to meet the new standard are major cities or counties clustered around power plants, while in Southern California, automobiles account for much of the fine-particle pollution. EPA officials said they based their designations of noncomplying areas -- which included more counties than many states had wanted but fewer than environmentalists had called for -- on such factors as population density, air quality over the past three years, traffic volume and expected future growth.
By 2007, every community that fails to meet the fine-particle standard must submit an air-quality plan for federal approval; if they fail to do so, they would face penalties, including the potential loss of highway funding. Federal officials, however, rarely impose that sanction.
Many communities resist the "non-attainment" air-quality label because it can deter new investment, since emitters face stricter pollution curbs in communities that fail to meet the federal standard. Leavitt said his home state of Utah and other communities had prospered economically despite failing to meet earlier federal standards, but the National Association of Manufacturers said companies considering relocation would weigh the higher costs associated with moving to an area with more restrictive emissions rules.
"It's a question of how to strike a balance between economic development and environmental standards," NAM spokesman Darren McKinney said.
Officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia face the problem of trying to clean the air when much of the area's pollution comes from neighboring states. Virginia fought the non-attainment designation for nine of its counties. Tom Snyder, director of air and radiation management at Maryland's Department of the Environment, said the state is "the victim of significant pollution transport," with 60 percent of its fine-particle concentration coming from the Midwest and the South.
Stuart Freudberg, director of environmental programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said meeting the tougher fine-particle rules by the 2010 deadline is "going to be challenging but doable." The council represents 19 local governments, including the District's.
"It's a regional problem, and it needs to be a regional solution," Freudberg said.
The new designations come at a time when Congress and the administration are debating how best to reduce harmful pollutants from power plants and other industrial sources. President Bush is pushing legislation titled "Clear Skies" that would reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution -- two major contributors to fine-particle contamination -- by 70 percent sometime after 2015. EPA officials said this bill, coupled with an administration rule aimed at cleaning up off-road diesel engines, would bring 90 percent of the communities the agency listed yesterday into compliance with the new air quality standard.
But S. William Becker, executive director of the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, said the administration is placing an unfair burden on states and local communities by delaying the new pollution controls on power plants until 2015, even though the affected areas must come into compliance with fine-particle rules five years earlier.
"EPA air-quality rules allow industry far more time to reduce its environmental impact than for states to comply with national air quality standards," Becker said. "It's the power plant reductions on which the states are relying on to help."