The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday released its new proposal for tightening the nation’s smog restrictions, a move hailed by environmental and health organizations who had long called for the changes.
Under the new proposal, the EPA would lower the current top level limit for particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter — which are considered “fine particles” and which are responsible for haze that descends on cities and a variety of respiratory health issues — from the current nationwide standard of 15 micrograms-per-cubic-meter to between 12 or 13-micrograms-per-cubic-meter.
The type of fine particulate matter the EPA seeks to curb is released by forest fires, power plants, and automobiles, particularly diesel-powered engines.
The move could result in $69 million to $88 million in health-related cost-savings per year, according to the EPA, specifically in the form of “decreased mortality rates, fewer incidents of heart attacks, strokes, and childhood asthma.”
The EPA won’t make a final ruling on the new standards — whether or not the maximum allowable limit should be 12 or 13 micrograms-per-cubic-meter — until December, and is collecting public comments on its proposal via email and snail mail, instructions here (under “how to comment”).
But the EPA didn’t release the new proposed willingly. Rather, they had to be specifically ordered to do it by court order, the result of a lawsuit filed in February by 11 states, including New York and California, and several advocacy groups, who argued that the EPA had failed to meet its deadline for updating the smog rules every five years, with the last update coming in October 2006.
“This proposal is long overdue,” said Paul Cort, an attorney with non-profit environmnetal advocacy group Earthjustice who also represented the American Lung Association and the National Parks Conservation Association in the legal proceedings, in a statement released Friday.
“The fact that the EPA has been put back on track by the courts is an important first step in this process, but now the agency needs to set strong final standards to protect people from this deadly pollution,” Cort went on. “The law requires it, and the millions of Americans who live in areas made filthy by particle pollution desperately need it.”
At the same time, the EPA projects that most of the nation, a staggering 99 percent, is already on track be in compliance with these standards by 2020, except for six counties: Jefferson in Alabama, Santa Cruz in Arizona, Riverside and San Bernardino in California, Wayne in Michigan and Lincoln in Montana.
All but the two California counties would be in compliance if the standard is 13 micrograms, but all six counties would be in violation of the standard is 12. Further, it’s worth noting that those California counties are especially prone to wildfires, which the EPA notes is a major cause of particulate matter.
Check out the full list here and the EPA’s map of the counties here, with dark green representing those counties that wouldn’t qualify if the standard was 13 and light representing those that wouldn’t qualify if the standard was 12:
But those counties wouldn’t face any particularly harsh penalty, at least not immediately. As an EPA spokesperson told TPM: “Areas are not penalized for not meeting a standard on time; however, the Clean Air Act does include some penalties for not completing/ or completing approvable plans showing how an area will meet the standard, or not implementing a requirement in the state plan. EPA works closely with states to ensure planning is completed as required, so these types of penalties are rarely imposed.”
Specifically, the EPA could fine states or counties for not following proposed plans to bring their particulate levels under or equal to the maximum allowable standard.
But states have a long while to get in compliance, as an EPA spokesperson told TPM via email: “States would have to meet a revised fine particle health standard by 2020 — with a possible extension of up to five years, depending on the severity of an area’s pollution problem, and the availability of controls. The Clean Air Act does not specify a date for states to meet secondary PM2.5 standards; EPA and states determine that date through the implementation planning process. ”
In other words, the new smog rules, while well-intentioned, could be a long ways off from making an actual difference.