Federal air quality standards for airborne particle pollution won’t change—despite the advice of EPA’s own staff and many independent scientists—under EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s proposed review of them, released Tuesday.
Wheeler said he drew on the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air advisers to retain the current standards that the Obama administration set in 2012. One of the seven advisers urged Wheeler to set more protective standards, while the rest advised keeping the current limits.
“We believe this threshold is protective based on the scientific data we have,” Wheeler told news reporters ahead of the release of the proposal (RIN: 2060-AS50).
As a result of Clean Air Act programs and efforts by state, local, and tribal governments, as well as technological improvements, Wheeler said, average concentrations of fine particle pollution in the U.S. fell by 39% between 2000 and 2018, while average concentrations of coarse particles fell by 31% during the same period.
“We have the cleanest air in the U.S. and we will keep it that way,” he said.
In proposing this action, Wheeler dismissed a January staff report that said the current annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air and the 24-hour limit of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air don’t adequately protect public health from fine airborne particle pollution. The report included the staff’s own observations in light of the latest science and various critiques by the agency’s science advisers.
Wheeler also didn’t take the advice of an independent panel of former EPA clean air advisers, who concluded in October that particle pollution poses an even bigger health threat than once thought and that current standards don’t protect public health.
Christopher Frey, a civil and environmental engineering professor with North Carolina State University who chaired that panel and past EPA air advisory panels, said Wheeler’s decision was contrary to compelling new scientific evidence.
Wheeler disbanded Frey’s panel in 2018, but it reconvened on its own and concluded the annual fine-particle standard should be 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air rather than the current 12.
Science as ‘Guiding Light’
Fine airborne particle pollution, also known as PM 2.5, refers to microscopic industrial specks from burning fossil fuels that can reduce visibility and are associated with cardiac and respiratory illnesses. Coarse particles, or PM 10, include soot particles that can be inhaled.
A more stringent standard could have brought more controls on power plants, refineries, trucks and all other sources of fine particle pollution.
Wheeler said there wasn’t enough data about exposure to fine particle pollution in areas that meet the current standards. He also said there were uncertainties in epidemiological evidence in those areas.
The proposal came on the heels of a Harvard School of Public Health study quantifying the link between long-term exposure to fine particle pollution and an increase in the death rate from Covid-19. The disease caused by the coronavirus has killed more than 18,500 people in the U.S.
Wheeler said he would look at the Harvard study once it’s peer reviewed.
Industry groups and Republican-leaning states welcomed the EPA’s decision to keep the current limits in place.
“With air quality improving, EPA’s decision will enable further environmental progress under the current standards and emissions controls,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement.
The decision was an example of how the Trump administration and the EPA “continue to demonstrate that states have rights and, more importantly, that science will be the guiding light when it comes to regulating the environment,” Cabinet Secretary Austin Caperton of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement.
‘Mockery’ of Process
Environmental groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Citizen, said they were disappointed but not surprised.
Wheeler made a “mockery” of the review process, starting with removing independent scientists, disbanding panels of experts and then speeding up the review process to meet an artificial deadline, Gretchen Goldman, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told Bloomberg Law.
“For sure this was a sham process,” she said. “We could have had rich robust scientific discussions about the adequacy of standards, where research should go, but we never got that opportunity.”
The Clean Air Task Force said Wheeler had required the science advisers to evaluate a policy position on the current standards before they had a chance to assess the latest science.
The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review the annual and 24-hour standards for fine and coarse particle pollution every five years. In the past, the EPA rarely met that deadline. The agency last set the limits for fine particle pollution in 2012.
Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt placed the agency on an expedited timeline to finish its review of the 2015 ozone limits and the 2012 fine airborne particle pollution limits by the end of this year.
The proposed review of current particle pollution standards is subject to a 60-day public comment period following its publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will then evaluate the comments. Wheeler said he looks forward to signing his final decision by the year’s end.
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