Friday, April 22, 2011

Wall Street Journal: EPA staff says set tougher standards for particle soot

Air-Quality Standards Questioned by EPA Staff
By Ryan Tracy
The Wall Street Journal Online

WASHINGTON—U.S. government scientists questioned federal standards for particle pollution in the air, setting the stage for the Environmental Protection Agency to propose tougher rules affecting emissions from power plants, manufacturers, or automobiles later this year.

The EPA said Friday it hasn't decided whether to strengthen the rules in question. But in a report made public this week, EPA staff said "currently available information clearly calls into question the adequacy of the current standards." The staff were examining EPA regulations for "fine particles" found in smoke or haze emitted after fuel is burned.

"It is the official declaration by EPA experts that current air-quality standards for particle soot are far too weak and need to be updated," Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, said of the report. "If the political appointees of the Obama administration follow through honestly, they will have to set significantly tougher standards to protect people's health."

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set standards for air quality, including the presence of tiny particles that can cause lung and heart problems when they are inhaled. States then develop plans to implement the standards.

In 2006, the Bush administration updated the standards but didn't change a critical standard for fine particles. Watchdog groups sued and won, with a federal court ordering the EPA to revisit the fine-particle standard because the agency hadn't proven that the rule adequately protected public health.

The scientists' report was published Tuesday as part of an assessment of the EPA's options for changing the rule. The EPA said it will issue a formal proposal later this year.

The agency is also reviewing standards for other types of particle pollution, including what are known as coarse particles. Coarse particles are larger than fine particles and are associated with dust from farming and mining operations in the Western U.S.

On standards for coarse particles, the EPA scientists were less clear in Tuesday's report. They wrote that it would be "appropriate" for the EPA to keep current standards or to revise them.

Farmers and their allies in Congress have been worried that the EPA will decide to set strict standards for airborne dust in rural areas. Richard Krause, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau, said that lowering the acceptable level of coarse particles in the air "is going to have a lot worse economic impacts and a lot worse effects on business."

"We would prefer to keep it as it is," he said of the rule.

In their assessment, the EPA scientists acknowledged "uncertainties and limitations" regarding the evidence for negative health impacts from particle pollution.

But they concluded there was enough evidence for the EPA to consider tougher rules on emissions for fine particles, which can come from coal-fired power plants, factories, and transportation fuels that contain sulfur.

"Consideration should be given to revising the suite of standards to provide increased public health protection," the scientists wrote.

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