EPA Finalizes Lax Pollution Rules Linked to Tens of Thousands of Deaths

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo., on July 27, 2018. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In the midst of a respiratory pandemic, the Trump administration announced Monday that it will not set tougher standards on the U.S.’s most widespread deadly air pollutant, soot.

At a virtual press conference, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler portrayed the move as one that champions how much air quality has already improved.

Though annual concentrations of fine particulate matter are said to have decreased by 39% since 2000 — climate activists cast doubt on the measures, saying they are more attributable to inadequate air monitoring than to actually cleaner air.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed off on the air quality rule after a review by the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs ended Friday, according to a Washington Post report citing anonymous sources.

“The EPA under the Trump administration has continued America’s leadership in clear air, lowering our particulate matter levels to well below those of many of our global competitors,” Wheeler said in a statement Monday. “Maintaining these important standards will ensure Americans can continue to breathe some of the cleanest air on the planet.”

Just this past April, Harvard University researchers published their findings about the intersection of sooty air and national Covid-19 mortality. Finding a link, the study details that dangerous airborne particulate matter resulting mainly from burning fossil fuel can cause heart and lung problems, which in turn can increase the fatality rate for those struck with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Even before the pandemic, EPA scientists had recommended making the annual particulate matter standards more restrictive, saying the death rate would drop 27%, or 12,150 people, a year if limits on fine soot particles were changed from 12 micrograms per cubic meter — or 1/30th the width of a human hair — to 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

Just a week after the Harvard study came out, however, the EPA announced that it would leave the air pollution regulations at their current level for another five years rather than issue more protective measures. 

“We believe that the current standard is protective of public health,” Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said of the measures introduced in 2012 by the Obama administration.

In the intervening months, a federal judge in New York dismissed a challenge to this policy by the National Resources Defense Council.

John Walke, clean air director at the council, expressed his disapproval of the administration’s latest move in a statement Monday.

“In its waning days, the Trump administration is still letting polluters off scot free and leaving the rest of us to keep breathing the industry’s deadly pollution — even in the midst of a respiratory pandemic. This administration could have strengthened the limits on soot to protect our lungs and give people at the highest risk of dying from Covid-19 a better chance at fighting off this virus,” said Walke. “But it chose not to — leaving the health of tens of millions of Americans at risk.” 

Another court battle could be in store.

“Trump EPA’s failure to act on deadly particles that put millions at risk is a flagrant violation of the Clean Air Act and EDF will consider all options to save lives and enforce the law,” Environmental Defense Fund general counsel Vickie Patton said Monday.

Still others like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute have applauded the EPA’s move.

“Under existing standards, the U.S. has made remarkable progress in reducing emissions and improving air quality,” API senior vice president Frank Macchiarola said in a statement Monday. “Thanks to cleaner fuels and industry action, we have the cleanest air in half a century, and with smart regulations and continued innovation, we can build on this progress while delivering affordable, reliable energy around the world.”  

Congressman Alex Mooney of West Virginia championed Monday’s announcement as well.

“As crafted, this rule well balances the need for a cleaner environment with the need for continued economic development,” the Republican told reporters this afternoon. “Under the leadership of President Trump, America has cleaner air and is energy independent, with West Virginia serving as the backbone for our nation’s energy production.”

One-thirtieth the width of a human hair, soot particles are able to enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing inflammation that can trigger asthma and heart attacks among other ailments. The debris can come from industrial facilities, vehicle exhausts, wood burning and incinerators.

Some studies have said that communities of color, who are disproportionately at risk for Covid-19 and other respiratory ailments, are also at risk to breathe in more air pollution from vehicles than white communities and are subject to far more air pollution.

Walke said he hopes President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will swiftly undo the regulation decision.

“Fortunately, the incoming administration has signaled it will make restoring the EPA’s mission to protect people over polluters a top priority. It’s time polluters stopped making us sick,” Walke said.

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