EPA Proposing Stronger Air Quality Standards


Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to strengthen key national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for fine particles, or soot, to protect communities from pollution.

These particles, also known as PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs and can result in serious health effects that include asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death. According to the EPA, these particles may be emitted directly from sources such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Other particles reportedly form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles.

“Our work to deliver clean, breathable air for everyone is a top priority at EPA, and this proposal will help ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from exposure to harmful pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

“This proposal to deliver stronger health protections against particulate matter is grounded in the best available science, advancing the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to scientific integrity and a rigorous scientific process.”

Latest Proposal

In a recent release, the EPA reports that it will specifically take comment on strengthening the primary health-based annual PM2.5 standard from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between nine and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, reflecting the latest health data and scientific evidence.

Additionally, the Agency is also taking comments on the full range (between eight and 11 micrograms per cubic meter) included in the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s (CASAC) latest report.

Based on thousands of new scientific studies demonstrating the dangers of soot exposure from its last review of the PM NAAQS in 2012, the EPA explains that strengthening the primary annual PM2.5 standard is expected to address disparities and would result in significant public health benefits. 

If finalized, the Agency anticipates that a strengthened primary annual PM2.5 standard at a level of nine micrograms per cubic meter, the lower end of the proposed range, would prevent:

  • up to 4,200 premature deaths per year;
  • 270,000 lost workdays per year;
  • result in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032.

The EPA is also reportedly proposing to revise other aspects related to the PM standards, such as monitoring requirements and the Air Quality Index. They are proposing to retain the primary 24-hour PM2.5 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, while taking comment on revising this level to as low as 25 micrograms per cubic meter. 

“As a physician who’s passionate about oncology and dedicated to enhancing the health equity that’s so often needed in Black communities and other communities of color, I am grateful for the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing equity and justice for all,” said Dr. Doris Browne, former President of the National Medical Association.

“No one should be sickened by the environment they live in, and EPA’s proposal marks the start of changes that will have lasting impacts in communities all over, especially Black and brown communities that often experience increased PM pollution. Harmful air pollution can have lasting and devastating impacts on people’s health, but by strengthening air quality standards, we can ensure healthier, more sustainable communities across this country.”

The Agency plans to accept public comment for 60 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register. A virtual public hearing will also be conducted over several days, with the hearing beginning at 11 a.m. ET and concluding at 7 p.m. ET each day after publication.

Supreme Court EPA Authority Ruling

While the EPA continues to propose changes to improve air quality, at the end of June, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In a 6-3 vote, the court said that Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants in a bid to transition away from coal to renewable energy sources.

The case, known as West Virginia v. the EPA, stems from a 2015 EPA directive to coal power plants to either reduce production or subsidize alternate forms of energy, but was never implemented due to being immediately challenged in court.

The Clean Power Plan, originating from the Obama administration, was temporarily blocked in 2016 by the Supreme Court, then repealed in 2019 by the Trump administration, arguing that the plan exceeds the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and that the act only allowed the agency to set standards on the physical premises of a power plant.

The Trump administration then proposed a policy called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule to regulate emissions only from existing coal-fired steam plants. However, that revision was challenged by states and environmental groups before ultimately being struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The majority opinion on the ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision was also reportedly the first time a majority opinion cited the “major questions doctrine” to justify a ruling, which holds that with issues of major national significance, a regulatory agency must have clear statutory authorization from Congress to take certain actions and not rely on its general agency authority.

Some considered the ruling a huge blow against President Joe Biden’s climate crisis plan, which includes cutting the nation’s GHG emissions in half by the end of the decade, as well as achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. According to reports at the time, power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output, with the U.S. the second largest producer of GHG in the world.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia vs. EPA is another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards. While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” said Biden in a statement following the ruling.

“I have directed my legal team to work with the Department of Justice and affected agencies to review this decision carefully and find ways that we can, under federal law, continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change.”


Tagged categories: Air pollution control; Air quality; Environmental Control; Environmental Controls; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Government; Hazardous air pollutants; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Program/Project Management

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