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EPA Declines To Strengthen Soot Standard

Luke Sharrett
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Water vapor rises from a coal powered power plant stack. Pollution from burning coal affects a larger area than vehicle emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it is keeping an important air pollution standard in place, in spite of recommendations from its own scientists that a stronger standard could save lives.

Fine particulate matter, or soot, is linked with heart and lung disorder and causes 52,000 deaths a year, according to the EPA. It is created by burning fossil fuels, wildfires, and dust.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency would not strengthen the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic liter of fine particulate matter.

“This decision…comes after careful review of the most recent available scientific evidence,” Wheeler said. 

But last year, EPA staff estimated a stronger standard for soot of between 8 and 10 micrograms could save as many as 12,500 lives a year in the U.S.

The decision to keep the current standard comes after four years of the Trump administration’s changes to the way the EPA incorporates science.

Among those changes is the appointment of scientists with industry ties to its outside advisory panel, and the dismissal of a group of scientists that was reviewing the risks of particle pollution.

Chris Frey, an environmental engineer at North Carolina State, was on a panel of scientists the EPA dismissed after it reviewed the risks of particulate matter. He says the EPA ignored science by not imposing a stricter standard.

“The evidence is so strong that the current standard is not adequate, that leaving it as it is is actually a significant threat to public health,” Frey said. “Every year that we don’t strengthen this standard, thousands of people are going to die prematurely, that those deaths could have been avoided.”

In Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, Lebanon County, and Delaware County all fail to meet current standards for fine particulates. It is one of four states that do not meet the current federal standards for particulate matter.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.