The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed tougher pollution standards for soot, a step that supporters said will protect public health and industry groups and Republicans warned would crimp economic growth.
The annual standards for particulate matter, or microscopic particles released from automobile exhausts, power plants or factories, would be set from 12 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter under a proposed rule the EPA released today. The current standard is 15 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency said it would issue the final rule by Dec. 14.
“To protect public health, we have to strengthen the annual standard for fine particles,” Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, said today on a conference call. “Particulate matter is a serious pollutant.”
The agency said it would collect comment from the public as well as stakeholders to “determine the appropriate final standard.” McCarthy said counties wouldn’t have to comply with the new rule until 2020.
The standard, the subject of a lengthy court fight, would cover particles 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. Environmentalists and public-health advocates said soot is among the deadliest contaminants released into the air. It can enter the lungs and bloodstream and lead to heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks, according to the American Lung Association.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Paul Cort, a staff attorney at San Francisco-based Earthjustice, which was among the environmental groups and states that joined the Lung Association in seeking a lower soot standard.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement that the proposal to rein in “deadly toxic soot is an important step forward” to protect public health.
Republicans had encouraged the administration to maintain the current standard.
“Any change to these regulatory standards could result in significant adverse economic consequences and job losses,” Republican Representatives Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, chairman of the panel’s energy and power subcommittee, said in a statement.
Lobbyists for fuel refiners and other manufacturers this week pressed officials in President Barack Obama’s administration to maintain the 2006 soot-pollution standards, using the same arguments that helped the companies halt a rewrite of ozone rules last year.
They said the expense of the rule outweighs the benefits to public health.
“EPA’s proposal could substantially increase costs to states, municipalities, businesses and ultimately consumers without justified benefits,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based group whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. in Irving, Texas, and San Ramon, California-based Chevron Corp.
Jeffrey Holmstead, an assistant administrator for air and radiation at the EPA under Republican George W. Bush, said the rule will probably attract attention from Congress because it could limit economic development in some areas.
“This won’t be good news for places trying to attract new manufacturing jobs,” said Holmstead, now an energy lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP.
The EPA said 99 percent of U.S. counties are projected to meet the proposed standard without any additional action beyond what current and proposed clean-air rules require. Some of the proposed rules face court challenges.
San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Southern California won’t meet the 13 micrograms standard by 2020, and four additional counties, in Alabama, Arizona, Michigan and Montana, won’t meet the lower 12 microgram standard, according to projections from the EPA.
Depending on the final level of the standard, the EPA estimates a net economic benefit to the U.S. as the savings from lower medical costs and fewer deaths outstrip the expense to industry. Every dollar invested in pollution-control equipment could yield $30 to $86 in benefits, the agency said.
Net annual benefit would be $88 million to $5.9 billion, according to EPA. Projected costs range from $2.9 million to $69 million a year, according to the EPA.
Like the ozone rules, the soot regulations don’t target pollution from one source, and instead set general air-quality levels that local communities and states are responsible for meeting.
“This a tremendous win for our health and the environment that could only be achieved by following the best science and upholding the Clean Air Act,” John Walke, clean-air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail.
Paul Billings, vice president for national policy and advocacy at the Lung Association, said the new standard will prevent thousands of premature deaths a year.
Even so, he said in an e-mail that the group will seek a lower standard of 11 micrograms per cubic meter during the public 63-day comment period that will follow the EPA’s announcement.
The EPA’s staff had recommended a standard as low as 11 micrograms per cubic meter, Cort of Earthjustice said.
Last September, Obama overruled a proposal by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to tighten standards for ozone nationwide, after a White House meeting with representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other trade groups.
Jackson last year said the administration wouldn’t adjust standards for larger dust particles. By law, the EPA must review soot standards every five years, and the proposals today are a year overdue. The Lung Association and Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington sued the EPA for inaction.
The EPA filed a proposed consent decree in federal court in Washington today, along with a request that U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins place the case on hold while the agency seeks public comment.
“These new rules mark an important turning point in our effort to ensure that federal air-quality standards adequately protect our health and the environment,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in an e-mailed statement.
The White House and the EPA since September have eased off on a series of proposals aimed at cleaning up pollution from industrial boilers, coal-fired power plants and gas drilling. Still, the administration faced varying degrees of industry complaints for the actions it did take.
There are five major categories of particulate control devices, such as scrubbers that use water or fabric filters to capture particles, according to the EPA.
Depending on the company and the type of emissions, the EPA proposal may require new equipment or technology to meet the tougher standard, according to Kevin Stevens, vice president of Houston-based Pollution Systems, which makes industrial wet scrubbers.
“Big utilities, petro-chemical and chemical makers, they’ve already got equipment in place and standards in place to get the easy chunks,” Stevens said in an interview. “To get from one limit to the next could potentially be very expensive.”
Until the rule is finalized, it will be hard to forecast the impact on pollution control system makers, Stevens said.
“Obviously, making a tighter standard is going to lead to more business for a company like ours,” Stevens said.