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Particle pollution measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or soot, is possibly the most deadly widespread air pollutant. Measuring one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, these particles come from activities ranging from wood burning to vehicle emissions and can cause respiratory and heart ailments by entering the lungs and bloodstream.
Facing a court-ordered deadline, the EPA will propose tightening the annual exposure to fine-particle soot from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to individuals who had been briefed on the rule making. Industry officials and environmentalists said the proposal, which will be finalized by mid-December, would have far-reaching implications for both the U.S. economy and public health.
"It's going to be a big step forward," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "This could help frame the national effort to clean this up for at least a decade."
Jeffrey Holstead, former head of the EPA's air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said he's been "a little surprised" that industry hasn't launched as hard a fight against these rules as it did against an EPA smog proposal last year, which President Barack Obama pulled back in September.
Administration officials have said repeatedly that several of the rules the EPA has either implemented or is in the process of finishing - including ones curbing mercury and air toxics, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from sources such as power plants, industrial boilers and cement plants - will help communities meet stricter soot requirements without additional costs.
The question of how to set an acceptable level of soot exposure has been the subject of political and legal wrangling for years. In 2006 the Bush administration rejected the advice of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee to make the annual standard more stringent and kept it at 15 micrograms per cubic meter, although it strengthened the 24-hour standard from 65 to 35 micrograms. Thirteen states and several environmental groups challenged the 2006 standards in court, and in 2009 a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to rewrite the rule.
The EPA's staff and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, an independent group of experts, concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to lower annual average soot exposure to between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter.
On June 6, Judge Robert Wilkins of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the EPA to issue its proposed rule by June 14.
Holmstead said the agency would be rushing to finalize such an important rule within six months, by Dec. 14. "This is probably the most important single issue under the Clean Air Act, and yet this is yet another sweetheart deal between the EPA and their allies in the environmental community," he said.
Once a rule is finalized, the EPA must determine how many counties across the country will be out of attainment with the new soot standards, and those communities must eventually cut down on pollution or risk losing federal funds. Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said a more stringent rule will discourage economic investment in counties that fail to meet federal air quality standards.
"It's in our interest to have a vibrant domestic economy," Feldman said, adding that many companies eyeing a place to build a plant or refinery "perceive non-attainment to be non-investment."
William Becker, executive director for the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said "there is going to be a significant workload" for some counties to meet the new standard.
"That's no reason not to support and follow the science, but it's one reason EPA and Congress will need to step up and provide additional resources and set strong federal control measures," Becker said.
In the past week, GOP lawmakers and industry officials have lobbied the White House to keep the existing annual soot exposure standard in place, or at least allow the EPA to take comments on that option as part of its proposed rule. "Our position is look, everyone will take comments and let the chips fall where they may," said Joseph Stanko, who heads government relations at the law firm Hunton and Williams and represents several utilities.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Republican Reps. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Joe Barton of Texas sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on June 6 arguing that scientific uncertainty still exists when it comes to reducing fine particle pollution further. They said the schedule "does not allow for full consideration of alternatives and review by expert scientists at other federal agencies."
Critics such as Feldman questioned the benefit of setting stricter standards for fine-particle pollution, which is already on the decline, because it contributes to mortality rather than causes it. "Neither you nor I know anyone who has died from PM 2.5 pollution," he said, referring to the fine particle unit of measurement.
But Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician who directs the University of Southern California Institute for Global Health and chairs the EPA's independent scientific advisory panel, said the scientific literature suggests there are adverse health effects from soot pollution "at the higher end of levels" that some Americans are exposed to right now, and the EPA administrator must adopt rules that ensure "an adequate margin of safety."
When looking at the causes of premature death in the United States, Samet added, "particulate matter would be at the top of the list."
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