EPA is set to announce tougher soot standards

Posted: June 15, 2012

WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency will announce a proposal Friday to tighten the nation's soot standards, a move that could help deliver major health benefits by the end of the decade but force some oil refiners, manufacturers, and other operations to invest in pollution-abatement upgrades.

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 made final 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 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.

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.

Once a rule is finalized, the EPA must determine how many counties across the country will be out of attainment with the new 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.

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