EPA Cuts Soot Level Allowable Daily in Air

Traffic jams Interstate 5 in Portland, Ore. North and northeast Portland have the state's worst pollution.
Traffic jams Interstate 5 in Portland, Ore. North and northeast Portland have the state's worst pollution. (By Greg Wahl-stephens -- Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

The Bush administration imposed stricter standards on the nation's air quality yesterday for the first time in nearly a decade, ruling that communities across the country must cut back on the amount of soot in the air on any given day.

The agency did not go as far as its own scientists had urged in curbing soot, which is linked to heart and lung disease as well as childhood asthma. The decision sparked complaints on both sides of the pollution debate, with public health experts saying it was inadequate and industry officials calling it too stringent.

The Environmental Protection Agency's new rule lowers the limit on how much fine particulate matter Americans may be exposed to over a 24-hour period, cutting the existing standard of 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 35. However, it leaves unchanged the annual limit for "fine particulate matter," or soot, in the air. That standard remains an average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter per day over the course of a year.

"Today EPA is delivering the most health-protective national air standards in our nation's history," agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said in a telephone news conference yesterday. "All Americans deserve to breathe cleaner air, and through these more protective standards, that's exactly what we're delivering today."

The EPA's scientific advisory panel voted overwhelmingly last year to recommend cutting the annual amount of soot Americans breathe, from a daily average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 13 or 14 micrograms. But William L. Wehrum, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, said officials concluded that the current annual standard "is in fact adequate to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, and there isn't sufficient evidence to justify a tightening of that standard."

Under federal law, officials are supposed to revise air quality rules every five years to reflect the latest scientific findings. Wehrum said the Supreme Court has ruled that officials should be "no more and no less stringent" than is needed to protect public health. "We have to hit the sweet spot here," he said.

The District and Baltimore -- which lie downwind of several power plants and are clogged with traffic -- are struggling to meet existing federal soot standards, which date to 1997.

Vince Morris, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the city is disappointed with the decision to leave the annual fine-particulate standard unchanged.

"It's discouraging to see the EPA take this approach, but it's not really surprising," Morris said. "We're trying to make the air cleaner for District residents against an avalanche of suburban sprawl and upwind factories, and this decision isn't going to help us at all. It's really a shame."

Public health activists, who noted that 60,000 Americans are estimated to die prematurely each year because of air pollution, were harsher in their assessment. According to an EPA analysis, the stricter standards endorsed by the scientific advisory panel would have reduced air pollution-related deaths in nine cities by 48 percent; the administration's new rules would cut deaths in those same cities by 22 percent.

"It is the single worst action the Bush administration has taken on air pollution," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "With this decision, the Bush administration has abdicated its responsibility to protect breathers from dangers in the air."

Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, whose members generate 60 percent of the nation's electricity, attacked the administration from the opposite perspective. Power plants have cut their fine-particulate emissions by 40 percent since 1980, he said, and the industry plans to spend more than $50 billion to cut emissions an additional 60 percent in Eastern states.

"EPA persists in overemphasizing studies that suggest a possible benefit to tightening the air quality standard, while downplaying those suggesting that doing so may not provide the health benefits EPA is seeking to achieve," Riedinger said. "Under the new standards, hundreds of counties that currently meet existing air quality standards will be in violation of the new ones, requiring tens of billions of dollars in annual expenditures to reduce emissions from all sectors of the economy."

The new rules will take effect in 2015; by then, the affected communities must draft plans for reducing air pollution or risk losing federal funds.

If the revised standards were in effect today, the District as well as Arlington and Loudon counties in Virginia would be out of compliance. But EPA officials said they expect all three areas to meet them by 2010.

Wehrum estimated that when the new rules take effect, about 32 additional counties -- most of them in Southern California -- will be out of compliance. Bebe Heiskell, who serves as county commissioner in Walker County, Ga., which is working to meet the 1997 standards, said she is concerned that the new rules will make it even harder for her community to attract businesses.

"It could have a detrimental impact on economic development and maintenance of the industry we do have," said Heiskell, who is appealing the EPA's decision to label her county as out of compliance. When it comes to soot in the air, she added, "I don't think it's affecting health in my community."

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