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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday finalized a long-anticipated rule aimed at reducing the level of air pollution known as particulate matter — microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and harm people’s health.
Reducing air pollution has been a prime focus of the Biden administration’s environmental agenda. The new rule tightens the amount of particulate matter, often referred to as soot, permitted in the air from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter annually.
It’s the first change in the limits since 2012.
These particles, which are 30 times smaller than a single strand of hair, are emitted by sources like diesel engines, wildfires, dust from construction sites, and coal-fired power plants. Some scientists call particulate matter the deadliest form of air pollution because it can cause lung and throat irritation, respiratory inflammation, irregular heartbeat and aggravate asthma.
Children, the elderly, and pregnant people are most susceptible to harm from these emissions.
The EPA projects that the new standard will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost work days, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032.
“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release.
Industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce immediately criticized the new rule, saying it will be time-consuming and difficult for states to implement and arguing that wildfires and other non-industrial sources are major soot generators that have contributed to many of the region’s elevated levels.
The American Petroleum Institute, a major trade group for U.S. oil and gas companies, called it a “short-sighted” standard with no scientific basis that will “prioritize foreign energy and manufacturing from unstable regions of the world over American jobs, manufacturing, and national security.”
According to EPA data, from 2020 to 2022, 10 Texas counties had particulate matter levels that would exceed the new standard, including four large urban counties: Dallas, Harris (which includes Houston), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Travis (Austin). Four others are on the Texas-Mexico border: El Paso, Webb (Laredo), Hidalgo (McAllen) and Cameron (Harlingen and Brownsville).
Kleberg County (Kingsville) and Bowie County (Texarkana) are also on that list.
For residents in Texas and other states that will be required to comply with the new limits, it will not immediately mean cleaner air. Implementation is a slow, tedious process that will take years.
The EPA will take about two years to officially declare which regions are meeting the new standard and which are not. States will have at least two to three years to create a plan to help bring those areas into compliance, which must be submitted to the EPA for approval — a separate process that can take another two years.
It’s essentially the same process that the EPA adopted in 2008 and 2015 to control ozone, another air pollutant that can make lung diseases worse, trigger asthma attacks and cause or aggravate chronic bronchitis.
More than a dozen Texas counties have been out of compliance with the 2015 federal ozone standards for nearly a decade with little improvement. Harris and Dallas counties have not met any federal ozone standard for more than three decades.
The state agency responsible for enforcing the federal standards, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has submitted several ozone reduction plans, but the EPA has repeatedly rejected them. Last year, the EPA rejected the latest plan because the state included ongoing emissions reduction strategies and no additional reduction plans or changes.
Daniel Cohan, an associate professor in the College of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University, calls the process a “paper exercise.”
“We've seen from the recent steps on ozone that the state has tended to issue plans that don't really achieve much,” he said.
Victoria Cann, a spokesperson with the TCEQ, said that ozone and particulate matter concentrations have declined over time even as the state's population has grown. But Cann said as air quality standards become stricter, more areas may fail to meet the rules and existing areas that fall short may continue to struggle to meet the standard for a longer time.
While cleaner air will not happen overnight, Neil Carman, a former TCEQ investigator who now works as clean air director for the Sierra Club in Texas, said in an email that the state has made some progress through its ozone reduction plans. He said the state now complies with the EPA ozone standard adopted in 1997, but has not met the stricter 2008 and 2015 standards.
Environmental advocates and health experts have said the new rule announced Wednesday will bring more of a focus on particulate matter, which has been neglected because of the attention put on ozone.
“I think there is an opportunity because there will be this renewed look at particulate pollution in the state that will provide the public opportunity to demand action to address the pollution,” said Paul Billings, national senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association.
According to the association’s 2023 “State of the Air” report, more than 1 in 3 Americans live in counties with unhealthy air because of elevated ozone and particulate matter.
Cohan, the Rice University professor, said Texas environmental regulators will have a challenge in figuring out how to reduce particulate matter because not all state air monitors provide data that can help pinpoint individual sources.
“[Particulate matter] is made of dozens of different compounds,” he said. “There's going to be a big learning curve in figuring out how to control particulate matter.”
Cohan and environmental advocates also expect lawsuits. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has repeatedly sued the Biden Administration over regulations it views as overreaching or an economic threat to the energy sector.
Marvin C. Brown IV, a senior attorney for the national environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, said the most immediate impact of the new EPA rule in Texas will be in the state's permitting process. Texas companies seeking to build new industrial facilities will need to comply with new soot standards to get operating permits, he said.
Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said in a statement that the new particulate matter standard “is a welcome step toward a healthier future.”
Disclosure: Rice University and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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