Under Court Order, EPA Toughens Air Quality Standards for Soot

The US Environmental Protection Agency has finalized rules that reduce by 20% the maximum amount of soot emitted by factory smokestacks, power plants, diesel trucks, wood-burning stoves and other pollution sources.

Soot is one of the most dangerous sources of pollution. It is one of the prominent climate forcers that is quickening climate change and it causes human health issues such as heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other lung problems.

Controlling soot – also known as black carbon – could cut the rate of climate change by half.

The standard hasn’t been updated since 1997 even though The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review air quality standards every five years to determine whether they need to be revised.

The new EPA regulation sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) that limit fine particular matter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, compared with the current standard of 15 micrograms.

It estimates that annual health benefits from tightening these standards range from $4 billion to $9.1 billion per year after 2020, while the annual costs for enforcing it will be $53 million to $350 million.

Under pressure from the American Lung Association, EPA issued a draft version of the bill in June after which 11 states and environmental groups sued to speed up implementation. The final rules were released on the day of a court-imposed deadline – December 14.

“We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe. Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it,” says Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. 

States and counties must comply with the rules by 2020, although they can apply for extensions up to 2025, depending on how hard it might be for certain areas to meet the new standards by that time.

The regulation will make it tougher for coal-fired power plants and certain manufacturing facilities to maintain their operating permits unless they adhere to the stricter environmental measures. Not surprisingly, several industry groups including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Petroleum Institute oppose the tougher restrictions.

NAM CEO Jay Timmons says, “This new standard will crush manufacturers’ plans for growth by restricting counties’ ability to issue permits for new facilities, which makes them less attractive for new business. Essentially, existing facilities will have to be shuttered for new facilities to be built in these areas.”

The EPA disputes this argument, noting that other federal and state initiatives already under way should make it easier to comply with the soot regulations. Just seven counties in California are unlikely to meet the deadline without taking additional local measures, they say.

“Emission reductions from EPA and states rules already on the books will help 99% of counties with monitors meet the revised PM2.5 standards without additional emission reductions. These rules include clean diesel rules for vehicles and fuels, and rules to reduce pollution from power plants, locomotives, marine vessels and power plants, among others,” says EPA.

Here’s a video on the updated soot regulations:

In February, EPA issued long overdue Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which reduce the amount of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic air emissions allowed by power plants. Those standards have been under attack in the House, which in September, passed the "mother of anti-environmental bills", the record-breaking 302nd anti-environmental vote – the worst in history against the environment.

Here’s a summary of the regulations on particulate matter:

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