By Chris Baltimore
WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - The Bush administration must decide by next week whether to change standards limiting tiny particles emitted by power plants and cars, and environmental groups fear the rules won't go far enough to protect public health.
Under a legal settlement reached with environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency must reconsider existing standards by Tuesday, Dec. 20, to curb the amount of so-called fine particles.
The emissions are linked to premature deaths from heart and lung disease, chronic bronchitis and asthma.
The EPA could leave existing rules intact, or change the regulations which set daily and annual limits for the particles, which come from a range of sources such as power plants, road dust, burned-out brake shoes and wood smoke.
Environmental groups worry that the EPA will issue a rule that may appear tougher but will fail to require states to take new cleanup actions.
"My concern is that health science will be trumped by political science," said Frank O'Donnell at Clean Air Watch. "Setting a better 24-hour standard alone might look good on paper, but it would be meaningless in the real world."
The EPA declined to comment on details of the plan, which must be finalized by Sept. 27, 2006. It said in a statement that the regulation "will be grounded in the best available science" to protect public health.
Nearly 100 million people in the United States breathe unhealthy amounts of the particles, which are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Some of the worst emissions occur in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Coal-burning electric utilities have lobbied against tougher regulations. Officials from the Edison Electric Institute -- the biggest U.S. utility lobbying group -- met with Bush administration officials on Dec. 1 to discuss the proposal, according to a public record of meeting participants.
A letter sent to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson from 100 health researchers urged the agency to strengthen both the annual and 24-hour standards significantly, and to establish a stringent new 24-hour standard for larger particulate matter.
An EPA advisory panel called for tougher daily and annual standards, and a recent agency study of nine cities indicated 4,700 premature deaths would occur annually even if cities meet current standards.