Biden Administration Toughens Limits on Deadly Air Pollution

The E.P.A. says the new rule will prevent 4,500 premature deaths annually. Industry leaders are expected to challenge the regulation, saying it will harm the economy.


[ABS News Service/08.02.2024]

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday tightened limits on fine industrial particles, one of the most common and deadliest forms of air pollution, for the first time in a decade.

Business groups immediately objected, saying the new regulation could raise costs and hurt manufacturing jobs across the country. Public health organizations said the pollution rules would save lives and strengthen the economy by reducing hospitalizations and lost workdays.

Fine particulate matter, which can include soot, can come from factories, power plants and other industrial facilities. It can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and has been linked to serious health effects like asthma and heart and lung disease. Long-term exposure has been associated with premature deaths.

The new rule lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter to nine micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from the current standard of 12 micrograms. Over the next two years, the E.P.A. will use air sampling to identify areas that do not meet the new standard. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. By 2032, any that exceed the new standard could face penalties.

“Soot pollution is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution,” Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “This is truly a game changer for the health and well-being of communities in our country.”

Mr. Regan estimated that the rule would prevent 4,500 premature deaths every year and 290,000 lost workdays because of illness. The E.P.A. maintained that the rule also would deliver as much as $46 billion in net health benefits in the first year that the standards would be fully implemented.

The tiny particles are known as PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. By comparison, an average human hair is about 70 microns in diameter.

Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, called the rule “a step forward.” But he criticized the Biden administration for not going further, noting that science and health experts urged the E.P.A. to lower the standard for the annual average amount to eight micrograms instead of nine.

The new pollution limits could cause election-year complications for President Biden.

Business groups, which are expected to mount a legal challenge to the rule, argue that cutting pollution would crush manufacturing. That includes the roads and bridges funded by the 2021 infrastructure law, legislation that Mr. Biden often promotes. The rule also could make it harder to manufacture the electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and other products that are central to the president’s climate agenda, they said. Mr. Biden has also made the resurgence of American manufacturing part of his campaign pitch.

At least two Democratic governors, Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Laura Kelly of Kansas, wrote to Mr. Biden expressing concern about the rule’s economic impact.

Mike Ireland, president of the Portland Cement Association, which represents U.S. cement manufacturers, said the rule “would lead to fewer hours of operation at plants, which would mean layoffs, as well as less American cement and concrete at a time when the country needs more.”

Marty Durbin, the senior vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, predicted manufacturing “gridlock” and noted that wildfires and road dust, neither of which are accounted for in the rule, make up the bulk of fine particulate matter emissions. “This administration is creating obstacles to being able to achieve their infrastructure and climate objectives,” he said.

The U.S. Chamber has estimated that, under the tighter regulation, 569 counties would be out of compliance.

E.P.A. officials said that, by their count, as few as 59 counties might exceed the new standard. And most would be expected to fall within the acceptable range within a few years, they said — because other proposed regulations governing emissions from automobile tailpipes and power plants would also slash fine particulate matter.

“No doubt there will be a loud hue and cry from industry,” said Doris Browne, the former president of the National Medical Association, which is the largest U.S. organization representing Black physicians.

The new restrictions would especially help poor and minority communities, which are disproportionately located near industrial facilities, she said. “The new standard of nine will save lives,” Dr. Browne said. “That is the bottom line.”

The law requires the E.P.A. to review the latest science and to consider updating the PM 2.5 standard every five years, though it had not been strengthened since 2012 under the Obama administration.

The Trump administration did conduct a review. In a draft 457-page scientific assessment of the risks associated with keeping or strengthening the fine soot pollution rule, career scientists at the E.P.A. said that an estimated 45,000 deaths annually were linked to PM 2.5. The scientists wrote that if the rule were tightened to nine micrograms per cubic meter, annual deaths would fall by about 27 percent, or 12,150 people a year.

After the publication of that report, numerous industries, including oil and coal companies, automakers and chemical manufacturers, urged the Trump administration to disregard the findings, and it declined to make any changes.