WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Friday proposed tightening limits on fine particulate matter, a deadly air pollutant also known as black carbon.
It would be the first time in more than a decade that the federal government has cracked down on a pollutant responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year.
Particulate matter comes from chimneys, construction, trucks, power plants and other industrial activities. It is no more than 2.5 microns in diameter, one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, and can lodge in the lungs. It is linked to heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s draft rule would tighten the limit that has been in place since 2012 by up to 25 percent. The government estimates it could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths and 270,000 days of absence annually and result in net health and economic gains of up to $43 billion by 2032.
The Biden administration’s environmental agenda
Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, said the new rule is central to the Biden administration’s efforts to advocate for environmental justice. Poor and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to black carbon and other air pollution because they are often located near highways, power plants and other industrial facilities.
“Our work to provide clean, breathable air for all is a top priority at the EPA, and this proposal will help ensure all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from harmful pollution,” Mr. Regan said in a phone call with reporters.
A 2018 study by EPA scientists, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that black communities were at higher risk of health problems from exposure to carbon black than the general population.
“No one should be disgusted with the environment in which they live, and the EPA’s proposal marks the beginning of changes that will have lasting effects on communities everywhere, particularly black and brown communities,” said Dr. Doris Browne, former president of the National Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization representing black doctors.
For Mayela Bustos, 61, a teacher’s assistant for disabled children in southeast Houston, tighter air pollution standards can’t come soon enough. “We have some of the worst air quality in the world in this area and as someone who struggles with chronic respiratory problems I have trouble breathing some days,” she said.
The Clean Air Act requires the federal government to review the science related to particulate matter every five years and adjust the limit values accordingly. But despite recommendations from the agency’s own scientists and research showing that tightening pollution limits could save thousands of lives annually, the Trump administration opposed it in 2020. They were last tightened in 2012.
“The fact that the previous government missed the opportunity to strengthen these standards meant that in the meantime we have seen people suffer the health effects of these standards that should have been tightened,” said Laura Bender, deputy Vice President of the American Lung Association.
Business groups say the new rule will hurt an economy already battered by inflation.
“While it is important to continue making progress, further reductions in particulate matter standards may have unintended consequences and impair our ability to build much-needed infrastructure,” said Chad Whiteman, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs for Global Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute . “In this era of high inflation and supply chain disruptions, the US cannot afford any more disruption to our economy.”
The EPA’s cost-benefit analysis of its proposed rule concluded it would cost the industry between $95 million and $390 million by 2032. However, the agency estimates that the economic benefits, calculated in terms of lives saved, illnesses averted and absenteeism avoided, would outweigh these costs by a range of $8 billion to $43 billion over the same period.
The draft rule proposes lowering the particulate matter standard from a limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic metre. EPA will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 60 days. Agency officials said based on those comments they could tighten or loosen the original proposal before finalizing it, most likely later this year.
Some environmental justice advocates said the proposal does not go far enough to protect vulnerable communities. “This rule takes no steps to mitigate decades of neglect and damage done to the health of our communities, and particularly the health of Latino children,” said Laura M. Esquivel, vice president for federal policy at the Hispanic Federation. “We will remain committed to ensuring that the Biden administration does more to ensure Latino communities are not endangered.”
The proposed rule is the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to restore and expand environmental protections that were reversed, weakened or ignored under President Donald J. Trump. Following November’s midterm elections, Mr. Biden now faces two years of a divided Congress with little prospect of significant legislation over the next two years. That leaves him with executive power.
In 2021, the EPA restored Obama-era rules on climate-warming auto pollution that had been reversed under Mr Trump, and those rules are expected to be further tightened later this year. Also this year, agency officials plan to finalize a new regulation on leaks of methane, a potent, planet-warming gas seeping from oil and gas wells, and enact a new rule to curb carbon emissions from power plants after Trump Die Government had weakened and reversed regulations on these pollutants.