Unhealthy Levels of Fine Soot Plague 20 States
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2004 (ENS) - More than 96 million Americans - about one-third of the U.S. population - live in areas with unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on Friday.
The tiny airborne particles, called PM2.5, have been linked to serious heart and respiratory problems and are responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year.
Fine particulate matter is created through combustion - major sources include coal fired power plants, automobiles, diesel engines and wood burning stoves.
The EPA's list of areas failing to comply with the PM2.5 standard includes 224 counties across 20 states as well as the city of Washington, DC.
Many of the areas with heavy PM2.5 pollution lie near power plants in the Midwest or within the major urban corridor that stretches from the nation's capital through Connecticut.
Only three of the states - California, Montana and Missouri - lie West of the Mississippi River.
In Libby, Montana, the problem is wood stoves. The EPA, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and city and county officials are studying ways to better control wood stove emissions, the EPA said Friday.
Studies conducted by the University of Montana show that wood stoves contribute to more than 80 percent of the PM2.5 problem in the Libby airshed. New measures could include exchanging existing wood stoves for stoves certified by the EPA that produce up to 90 percent less emissions.
Governors of states in nonattainment have three years to submit implementation plans outlining strategies to comply with the standard by 2010.
States that fail to comply face the risk of losing federal transportation funds, although this is unlikely to be enforced and areas with severe problems can get five year extensions.
EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt told reporters the focus should be on the 30 states that are meeting the standard, rather than the areas that are not in compliance.
"This is an American success story," Leavitt said. "This is not a story about the air getting dirtier."
Leavitt, who is set to leave the EPA to take charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the nation's air "is cleaner today than at any time in memory."
That statement is misleading, say critics, who point to a report issued in October by the EPA's Inspector General that found ground level ozone - or smog - has not declined in most of the nation's seriously polluted areas during the past decade and is even increasing in some areas.
But the EPA says fine particulate matter has decreased in recent years.
A report released last week by the federal agency estimates PM2.5 levels have decreased 10 percent since 1999 and are about 30 percent lower than the EPA estimates they were 25 years ago.
Although there are some efforts that state and local officials can take to cut PM2.5 pollution, Leavitt acknowledged that the federal government has the major role to play given the regional nature of soot pollution, which drifts across state and county lines.
Leavitt said the combination of a new regulation limiting emissions from diesel engines - combined with the administration's proposal to cut emissions from power plants - would help some 90 percent of nonattainment areas reach compliance by 2020.
Environmentalists and public health advocates say that is unlikely given the administration's recent decision to delay finalization of a regulation known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which would force power plants to cut harmful emissions some 70 percent by 2018.
The rule embodies much of the administration's "Clear Skies" initiative, which failed to gain traction in Congress during the President's first term.
Administration officials are now more optimistic they can get Congressional support for Clear Skies and earlier this month the White House decided to delay implementation of the rule until at least March.
The legislative version of Clear Skies is favored by power plant utilities, which argue it would provide additional flexibility that will encourage faster emission reductions.
Critics say the legislation specifically weakens existing law and is less protective of human health and less aggressive than the proposed rule.
"It is outrageous that the Bush administration could, with the stroke of a pen, deliver healthy air to virtually all of these areas by strengthening and finalizing the Clean Air Interstate Rule," said Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air, a national public education campaign on the part of grassroots organizations, national environmental groups, and policy experts.
"Instead of doing that," said Ledford, "President Bush is spending his political capital on a scheme that would weaken the country's clean air laws, leaving us breathing dirtier air longer."
There is also debate as to whether the administration is understating the number of areas suffering from unhealthy levels of PM2.5 pollution.
Ledford's organization said 406 counties should have been put on the list of areas in nonattainment in order to fully inform the public of air quality and to ensure adequate and comprehensive cleanup plans are created by local and state officials.
The agency "omitted key counties in many areas where pollution sources, like coal fired power plants, directly contribute to the problem," according to John Kirkwood, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association. "Dropping those counties hurts the ability of many areas to provide cleaner air for their residents."
In June the EPA suggested 243 counties would be found in nonattainment - state governors told the agency only 141 should be listed.
Governors and local officials say designating an area as in nonattainment puts an added economic burden on the community, which may find it more difficult to expand industry or attract new businesses given stricter environmental constraints.
Leavitt downplayed that fear and told reporters that nonattainment status "does not necessarily impede an area's economic prosperity."
The standards for PM2.5, which consists of tiny airborne particles about 1/30th the size of a human hair, were established by the Clinton administration in 1997, but legal challenges by industry groups slowed their implementation.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the standards and in 2002 all remaining legal challenges were cleared, allowing EPA to move forward with regulations and programs to limit these fine particulates.
The states with counties in non-compliance are: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
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