Proposed Standards for Air Quality Criticized

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Bush administration proposed a modest tightening of federal air-quality standards yesterday for the first time in eight years, drawing protests from both public health and industry officials.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said he has decided to maintain the current annual standard for fine particulate matter, or soot, while reducing the daily soot limit from 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 35. The annual air standard would remain unchanged at 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The proposal -- which is subject to public comment for three months and would not become final until September 2006 -- fell short of what the EPA's scientific advisory board proposed earlier this year. That group suggested lowering the annual fine particulate level to 13 or 14 micrograms per cubic meter, and setting daily exposure level to between 30 and 35 micrograms.

The fine particles in soot -- which comes from automobiles, power plants and other industrial sources -- can cause inflammation and arterial damage after entering the bloodstream and lungs. According to the American Lung Association, about 60,000 Americans die prematurely each year because of air pollution. Under federal law, every county must take steps to meet national standards or risk losing federal funds.

"This proposal is yet another step in ensuring Americans have cleaner air and healthier lives," Johnson said in a telephone conference with reporters yesterday. "I made my decision based on the best available science."

But environmental and public health advocates criticized the new standards as inadequate, saying that since 1997, when the EPA first set particle standards, more than 2,000 studies have shown links between fine particles and a host of illnesses. The EPA was supposed to have revised the air-quality standards after five years, in 2002. The agency issued the current proposal after being sued by environmental groups.

"EPA set [the current] standards in 1997, when we knew so much less than we do now about the health impact of particle pollution. We now know better," said John L. Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association. "There is no excuse to set the new standards at levels that still do not meet the basic legal requirement outlined in the Clean Air Act, to protect the lives and health of the public."

Environmentalists had pushed for recommended levels that, according to a recent EPA analysis, would have reduced air pollution-related deaths in nine U.S. cities by 48 percent. By contrast, yesterday's proposal would cut those deaths by 22 percent.

EPA officials would not elaborate on how they reached their proposed limits, which would have to be met by 2015.

Electric utility officials attacked the administration's proposal as too stringent. They noted that in 2003, fine-particle pollution dropped to its lowest level since nationwide monitoring began in 1999, and that they are already spending to meet federal rules aimed at reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

John D. Kinsman, director of air-quality programs for the Edison Electric Institute, said the proposal "will force us to make even greater reductions than we were already planning." He added that the EPA did not take into account many studies indicating that fine particles are not a problem for public health.

Right now, nearly 90 million Americans are breathing unhealthy air, according to federal officials.

Some communities -- such as the District and Baltimore -- have struggled to meet the 1997 standards, in part because they are downwind of polluting power plants. But other areas have achieved greater success. On Nov. 30, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) announced that her entire state meets the current air standards; it had encouraged farmers to change their agricultural practices and had provided financial incentives for citizens to stop using wood stoves.

"I'm proud that Washington was the first state west of the Dakotas to meet air-quality standards," Gregoire said yesterday. "Clean air standards should be based on good science. Otherwise, we risk losing public support when standards go against sound advice."

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