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EPA rejects tougher air-quality standards, says 2015 limits are sufficient

The Trump administration says current limits on ozone are protective of public health, even as critics say stricter rules are needed to protect vulnerable communities

The Dave Johntson coal-fired power plant in Glenrock, Wyo., in 2018. (J. David Ake/AP)
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The Trump administration said Monday that it will maintain national air-quality standards put in place in 2015, despite calls for more stringent regulations that advocates say are necessary to protect Americans in communities that are particularly vulnerable to respiratory ailments.

In a call with reporters, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued the existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone are sufficient, “based on a review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisers."

Wheeler underscored that a group of outside advisers, known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, had recommended the agency retain the existing ozone standards. The agency also noted ozone concentrations in the United States fell 4 percent between 2017 and 2019 and numerous areas of the country that once had failed to meet air-quality standards have come into compliance. In addition, the agency said, national average ozone concentrations have dropped 25 percent in recent decades, mainly because of reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, pollutants that contribute to the formation of smog.

Monday’s decision came months after the EPA also decided to maintain the current, Obama-era standards for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as soot. Such pollution can come from a variety of sources, including cars and trucks, smokestacks, incinerators and industrial operations. Fine particles of pollution can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation that can lead to asthma, heart attacks and other illnesses. EPA staff scientists had recommended lowering the annual amount of particulate matter allowed into the air in a draft report last year, estimating such a move could save thousands of lives. The agency’s outside advisory group was split on whether the EPA should toughen that standard.

Poor and minority communities in the United States have tended to face greater exposure to air pollution because they often are located closer to highways and industrial facilities. For instance, a 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found, on average, communities of color in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.

The uneven burden of air pollution borne by such communities and by people with chronic lung and heart problems, activists say, makes tougher standards essential.

“In the midst of the worsening respiratory public health crisis with tens of thousands of people being sickened daily by the coronavirus, the Trump administration is yet again doing nothing to make it easier to breathe,” Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement Monday. “By not strengthening the ozone standards, the Trump administration is perpetuating environmental racism for communities of color and putting children’s developing lungs at risk.”

Separately, a group of 15 health-based organizations, including the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Monday that the current standards endorsed by the Trump administration are insufficient.

“There is powerful, overwhelming evidence that shows that this standard is not adequate to protect the health of Americans,” the group said in a statement. “EPA’s proposal violates the core purpose of these standards under the Clean Air Act: to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety."

The current rules limit ozone pollution to 70 parts per billion over any eight-hour period. But the group of public health experts said a growing body of scientific evidence suggests the threshold should be no higher than 60 parts per billion to adequately safeguard public health.

Industry officials on Monday praised the EPA’s decision to stick to the status quo.

“Amid a global pandemic, manufacturers are serving on the front lines helping our nation respond to and recover from covid-19,” Rachel Jones, vice president for energy and resources at the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement. “So at a time when we are facing record-breaking unemployment, a lower ozone standard could slow our economic rebound and threaten manufacturing competitiveness. We shouldn’t have to choose between environmental protection and a strong economy.”

Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the nation’s oil and natural gas sector, also said the administration had struck a proper balance. “EPA’s proposal to retain the current [standard] will help the U.S. continue to reduce emissions, protect public health consistent with the Clean Air Act, and enable economic growth,” Macchiarola said in a statement. “The decline in U.S. emissions, which has led to the cleanest air in half a century, is due in large measure to cleaner-burning fuels and advanced technologies.”

EPA officials said the agency would accept comments on Monday’s proposal for 45 days before the standards become finalized.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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