U.S. Fine Particle Air Emission Standards Up for Revision

WASHINGTON, DC, December 23, 2005 (ENS) – Revisions to the national air quality standards for fine particle pollution, and for some coarse particles, have been proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Environmental and clean air critics call the new standards a gift to industry.

Numerous studies have associated fine particulate matter with respiratory and cardiovascular problems such as aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, and early death in people with heart or lung disease. Particle pollution can also contribute to visibility impairment.

The EPA defines particulate matter as a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particulate matter can be directly emitted, as in smoke from a fire, or it can form in the atmosphere from reactions of gases such as sulfur dioxide.

The revisions address two categories of particulate matter - fine particles which are particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller.

The proposed revisions would strengthen by nearly 50 percent the current standards for short-term exposure to high levels of fine particles, the EPA said.

power plant

Hunter power plant in Utah burns coal. Owned and operated by Stearns-Roger, Jelco, Brown & Root, Morrison Knudsen. (Photo courtesy Utah Geological Survey)
Also regulated are "inhalable coarse" particles, between 2.5 and 10 micrometers (PM10-2.5), from such sources as high-density traffic on paved roads and industry.

The proposed standard would not apply to airborne mixes of coarse particles that "do not pose much risk to public health, such as windblown dust and soils and agricultural and mining sources," the EPA said.

For fine particles, EPA is also taking comment on a range of annual and 24-hour standards, including strengthening these standards as well as retaining the standards at their present levels.

In addition, EPA is proposing a standard for reducing inhalable coarse particles, or PM10-2.5. For these particles, EPA is proposing a 24-hour standard of 70 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA has had national air quality standards for fine particles since 1997 and for coarse particles 10 micrometers and smaller (PM10) since 1987.

In a separate but related action, EPA is proposing amendments to its national air quality monitoring requirements, including those for monitoring particle pollution.

The agency says the revisions will help states and local air quality agencies in their efforts to improve public health protection and inform the public about air quality in their communities, and they will allow air quality regulators to take advantage of improvements in monitoring technology.


Haze through the trees in Great Smoky National Park (Photo courtesy NPS)
EPA is seeking comments on a number of alternative levels for the PM standards, including retaining the current standards. The agency will take public comment for 90 days following publication of the proposal in the Federal Register and will hold three public hearings.

John Kirkwood, president and CEO of the American Lung Association commented that the EPA plan is "disappointing."

"If EPA adopts the standard as proposed," Kirkwood said, "the agency will have failed the most fundamental task required by the Clean Air Act - to protect public health from one of the major air pollutants."

For the first time, he said, the EPA will have ignored recommendations from its own staff scientists and from its official outside review panel of scientists. Both groups have advised setting a stronger standard than EPA has proposed.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, called the proposed standards a giveaway to industry. "The Bush administration is giving an early Christmas present to smokestack industries - while sticking a sooty lump of coal in the stockings of breathers," he said.

"Fine particle pollution is the most lethal of widespread air contaminants, responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths each year," said O'Donnell. "The electric power industry has lobbied against standards that would require them to clean up more than they currently plan to do."

"Deplorably, the Bush administration has decided to side with the electric power industry rather than follow the advice of its own scientific advisors and other health experts. All of them have urged the agency to update our national air standards to further reduce annual public exposure to this deadly contaminant.

power plant

Bruce Mansfield power plant in Pennsylvania is coal fired. (Photo by Kiyo Komoda)
Mark Wenzler, clean air director with the National Parks Conservation Association, is concerned that the proposed standards are not tougher. "It's a travesty for our parks and our lungs that EPA chose to propose fine particle pollution standards which favor the owners of coal plants rather than those recommended by air quality and health scientists." he said. "Our national parks and lungs deserve better."

The fine particle standards "provide no actual new health or visibility benefits," Wenzler said.

Coal-fired power plants are the leading source of fine particle haze in national parks in the Eastern United States. Hundreds more coal plants are currently being developed across the nation, according the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The agency had seven years to review more than 2,000 studies showing that particle pollution, called particulate matter or PM, threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year," said Kirkwood.

"Based on the overwhelming evidence of the death and disease demonstrated in these studies, it was clear to the American Lung Association, to EPA’s own staff scientists and to the independent scientific review panel that much tighter limits were needed," he said.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to periodically review air quality standards to ensure they provide adequate health and environmental protection and to update those standards if necessary. EPA last updated the particle standards in 1997.

For additional information on the particle standards action, visit: http://www.epa.gov/air/particles/actions.html