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New EPA Rules on Soot and Dust Set

Widespread criticism greets the standards for human exposure to particulates. Some say ideas from scientific advisors were ignored.

September 22, 2006|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced new rules for controlling soot and dust that plague large areas of California, imposing one tougher safety standard but rejecting the recommendations of scientific advisors to strengthen others.

At a news conference, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson touted the rules as "the most protective air quality regulations in U.S. history" and said, "All Americans deserve to breathe clean air. That's exactly what we're doing today."

The EPA formulated the rules in response to a looming court deadline for updated standards in the settlement of a lawsuit by the environmental group Earthjustice.

Johnson's announcement of the rules drew harsh criticism from all sides of a long-running debate over how best to control some of the most harmful airborne contaminants. Those critics included industries faced with complying with the regulations, members of Congress and environmental groups.

After hearing some of the criticism, Johnson said that the Clean Air Act authorized him "to do what is requisite to protect public health ... neither more nor less stringent than necessary ... that's exactly what I did."

The EPA strengthened the standard that governed people's daily exposure to fine particles, or soot, but left unchanged one that deals with annual exposure. Also, the EPA scrapped another standard for coarse particles that are found in dust. A scientific panel established by Congress had strongly urged tightening annual soot standards to levels that members said could protect thousands more lives.

The new regulations pertain to fine and coarse particulate matter that is expelled from tailpipes, factory smokestacks, farm equipment and other sources and when inhaled can penetrate deep into the lungs. Exposure has been linked to severe asthma and premature deaths from heart and lung disease.

The Los Angeles Basin, especially the Riverside area, and the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada have the worst particulate pollution in the nation. The problem in urban areas is largely attributable to exhaust from trucks and other diesel-powered vehicles. The Owens Valley is prone to major dust storms.

Rogene Henderson, head of the EPA's scientific panel that was in charge of reviewing the agency's proposals, said the panel's recommendations to better protect public health were ignored.

"We are, of course, very disappointed," she said.

Henderson said Johnson's decision to eliminate regulation of annual exposure to coarse particulate, or dust, is a step backward and would hinder attempts by researchers to study the health effects.

In an unprecedented action, the panel had earlier publicly urged Johnson to adopt tougher standards to save more lives and reduce chronic illness.

Johnson said Thursday that Henderson's panel was divided and said "it's a complicated issue. Reasonable minds can agree to disagree."

Henderson retorted that all but two of 22 panel members wanted tougher standards.

Spokesmen for electric utilities and manufacturers said that the rules would cost billions of dollars to implement, and that the agency had shown no clear evidence that the standards were necessary.

"The electric power sector is in the midst of implementing a series of major emissions cuts that will reduce power plant emissions associated with particulate matter," said Dan Reidinger of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. shareholder-owned power companies that produce nearly 60% of the nation's electricity.

"We think EPA has jumped the gun by adopting a more stringent fine particle standard before the existing standards have been given a chance to work.... The industry will spend more than $50 billion to cut emissions. Our hope, obviously, is that these reductions will provide a real health benefit, though EPA hasn't adequately made that case."

Reidinger said "EPA persists in overemphasizing studies that suggest a possible benefit to tightening the air quality standard, while downplaying those suggesting that doing so may not."

U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also expressed concern: "I am disappointed that EPA is tightening the particulate matter standard in today's final rule. Recognizing that Administrator Stephen Johnson is a scientist himself, I respect his judgment and his command of the science, but I respectfully disagree that this new rule meets the threshold burden of proof necessary to impose these costly requirements on our nation's economy."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) lambasted the decision, saying that "once again, this administration has shown its true colors by choosing polluters over the people and setting new air standards on toxic dust that fail to protect public health. This decision, which flies in the face of science, should not stand. I hope that EPA reconsiders this misguided and dangerous decision. If not, it should be struck down by the courts."

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