EPA Proposes Cut in Airborne Particulate Matter Levels

Published February 1, 2006

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 21, 2005 proposed reducing allowable measured daily levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere by nearly half, from 65 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) down to 35 ug/m3.

By making clean air attainment standards more stringent, the new standard would change designations in many pollution monitoring locations from “attainment” to “non-compliance” with federal standards, and thus would require additional measures to reduce particulate matter.

EPA estimates the change would nearly double the number of pollution monitoring locations in violation of federal PM2.5 standards.

Clinton Standard More Lenient

The current daily standard of 65 ug/m3 was promulgated by the Clinton EPA in 1997. The standard has already significantly reduced particulate matter, with average PM2.5 levels dropping 15 percent from 1999 to 2004. Since the early 1980s, annual average PM2.5 levels have declined about 45 percent.

With his current proposal to cut allowable daily particulate matter levels by nearly half, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson chose a slightly more relaxed standard than was recommended by EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), a group of outside scientists and health experts. CASAC recommended a 30 ug/m3 daily limit and a 13-14 ug/m3 annual limit. Johnson’s proposal would not reduce the Clinton EPA’s annual limit of 15 ug/m3.

“Our nation’s air is the cleanest it has been in over a generation, and today’s proposal begins our next step in the steady march toward cleaner air and healthier lives by addressing particle pollution,” said Johnson.

Activists Attack New Reductions

Environmentalist activists were unimpressed. Clean Air Watch complained, “President Bush Gives Early Christmas Present to Smokestack Industries.” The American Lung Association called the cuts “‘Status Quo’ Revisions to PM” standards.

Many newspapers mirrored the eco-activists’ assertions. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s December 21, 2005 front-page headline claimed, “EPA barely budges on soot; Health advice disregarded.” According to the New York Times, EPA “modestly” reduced allowable PM2.5 and “largely ignored recommendations for tighter controls from its own scientists and from an independent panel of outside experts.”

Ben Lieberman, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, put the activist claims in perspective, saying, “The air is constantly getting cleaner, and has been doing so for decades. That is a point that activist groups conveniently omit and the media consistently fails to report.

“Activists tend to take things out of context and assert that any action short of their ‘most restrictive possible’ goals is a rollback in environmental standards. However, by virtually every measure of the Clean Air Act, the air is cleaner now than it was, for example, just five years ago. EPA’s newly proposed standards will accelerate this trend, although it is easy to make the argument that the substantial additional costs are not worth the very minor additional benefit.”

Compliance Expected to Decline

Most of the nation’s PM2.5 monitoring stations are in compliance with the current daily standard. While 14 percent of the monitoring locations violate the annual standard, only 0.3 percent violate the daily standard.

Under EPA’s new proposal, the more stringent daily standard would require a substantial new round of pollution abatement measures, nearly doubling the combined annual and daily PM2.5 violation rate to 27 percent of all monitoring sites. Virtually all monitoring stations that violate the annual standard would violate the daily standard as well.

The new standard will add approximately 75 additional counties to EPA’s list of PM 2.5 “non-attainment” areas.

With current standards and existing technologies already resulting in a steady decline in airborne particulate matter, however, it is possible EPA’s tougher PM2.5 standard won’t require any new emission-reduction requirements in some metropolitan areas.

Merits Unclear

“The Clean Air Act requires EPA to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, which these proposed standards simply do not do,” said Janice Nolen, director of national policy for the American Lung Association.

“In this case, thousands of people can die and millions of people can have asthma attacks and can die or end up in the hospital as a result of airborne particulate matter,” Nolen added. “More than 2,000 studies have consistently found adverse health effects at or even below the EPA’s proposed standard.”

“The adverse health effects claimed by activists are based on very weak epidemiological associations,” responded Lieberman. “Further tightening particulate matter standards provides very little, if any, health benefits at significant economic cost to society. We could do far better directing our economic resources toward more real and pressing health and welfare issues.

“The existing standard is already too stringent,” Lieberman added. “We’re already in the realm of excessive and unjustified regulation.”

EPA is accepting public comment on its proposed new standard through March 20. Johnson said EPA encourages comments and will take them into consideration prior to finalizing its decision. “We are hoping to have a robust public comment period,” Johnson said.

Joel Schwartz ([email protected]) is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For more information …

To submit comments on the proposed new PM2.5 standard, go to http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic-rel11/component/main.