The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new rule that will force communities across the country to improve air quality by the end of the decade while making it harder for some industries to expand operations without strict pollution controls. (F. Carter Smith/BLOOMBERG)

The Environmental Protection Agency tightened the nation’s soot standards by 20 percent Friday, a move that will force communities across the country to improve air quality by the end of the decade while making it harder for some industries to expand operations without strict pollution controls.

The new rule limits soot, or fine particulate matter, which stems from activities ranging from burning wood to diesel vehicle emissions and which causes disease by entering the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation. Fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, ranks as the country’s most widespread deadly pollutant.

“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.

The agency sent the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday, and business groups have been scrambling to alter it over the past week. Several trade groups — including the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council and the Rubber Manufacturers Association — got less than a day’s notice to weigh in with the OMB on Wednesday, where they argued that the EPA could protect public health and minimize economic harm with a more lenient standard of between 13 and 15 micrograms per cubic meter.

Ross Eisenberg, the manufacturing trade group’s vice president for energy and resources policy, told reporters in a conference call Thursday that the stricter rule will raise the price of doing business in the United States.

“It is impossible to ignore that, against the backdrop of a still-
fragile economy and a looming fiscal crisis, EPA is heaping another new set of costs and burdens on manufacturers,” he said.

But Brooke Suter, who heads the Clean Air Task Force’s National Diesel Clean-up Campaign, noted that the EPA’s own scientific advisory panel said that a standard that would protect public health would range between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter and that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to base the rule on scientific rather than economic considerations. Her group has estimated a soot limit of 12 micrograms would save 15,000 lives a year by the time the rule takes full effect in 2020.

“When it comes down to this, we have to do this,” Suter said. “This is the law.”

It is difficult to pin down the new standard’s economic impact, partly because some of the required reductions will be achieved under other EPA rules limiting mercury and sulfur dioxide. But one of the main rules that would have cut sulfur dioxide emissions in the eastern half of the country, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, was struck down in federal court this summer. Also, some members of Congress are threatening to block an upcoming rule curbing cruise ship pollution.

Jackson said that by 2020, the net annual benefits would range from $3.9 billion to $8.75 billion, because the EPA has already imposed pollution limits on everything from medical incinerators to off-road vehicles. “The federal government is stepping in to do most of the heavy lifting here,” she said.

Eisenberg questioned that analysis, however: “We don’t think it’s quite that clean.”

Brad Muller, vice president of marketing for Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, said his company couldn’t get an air permit to build a facility in rural North Carolina because county officials feared it would push them out of compliance.

“We’re not going to make this investment if we can’t get an air permit,” said Muller, who estimated his firm would have hired 1,985 employees and generated 815 temporary construction jobs for the new plant.

The EPA will also install roadside air quality monitors, which Jackson said will avoid missing “populations that might be exposed to much higher levels” of soot.

But Howard Feldman, the American Petroleum Institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, said the readings could be 20 percent higher at these sites.

“The health standards aren’t based on that,” he said. “It creates an additional stringency.”