The EPA announced Monday that it isn’t changing federal air quality standards for airborne particle pollution, despite the recommendations of the agency’s own staff and public health officials to make them more stringent.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the decision came after consultation with the agency’s independent scientific advisers, the consideration of more than 60,000 public comments, and five public meetings.
The Obama administration set the current standards in 2012 at 12 micrograms per cubic meter for airborne particle pollution, including soot, which is released from fossil fuel combustion and linked to cardiac and respiratory illnesses.
The EPA’s team of outside advisers last year issued a determination that supports the agency’s decision to maintain the existing standards. But critics have noted that the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s conclusion wasn’t unanimous, and that it conflicts with the advice of the EPA’s own staff and former science advisers.
The internal disagreement could feed legal challenges that say the agency ignored scientific evidence when it decided to forgo stronger air quality standards, environmental lawyers say.
Wheeler touted recent achievements during a Monday news conference, saying the U.S. has some of the lowest fine particulate matter concentrations in the world, five times below the global average.
Biden Could Lower Standard
Wheeler said Clean Air Act programs and efforts by state, local, and tribal governments, coupled with technological improvements, have slashed average annual concentrations of fine particle pollution in the U.S. by 43% between 2000 and 2019, while average concentrations of coarse particles fell by 46% during the same period.
“The EPA has one job: to protect public health and the environment, based on the best available science,” Gretchen Goldman, research director for Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said in a statement ahead of the EPA’s expected announcement. “With only a few weeks left in their tenure, President Trump’s EPA political appointees have abdicated this responsibility. The failure to strengthen particulate-matter protections is a dereliction of duty that puts lives at risk.”
But Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics, and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Industry, said the current standards have cleaned the air and enabled the delivery of “affordable, reliable energy around the world.”
The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden could move to lower the air particulate rules on its own.
Environmentalists note that airborne soot has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color—a demographic whose needs Biden has repeatedly said he wants to prioritize—because many polluting facilities have been built in their communities.
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