EPA Finalizes More Stringent Standard For Fine Particulate Matter at 12 Micrograms

The Environmental Protection Agency strengthened the annual air quality standard for fine particulate matter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter Dec. 14, which eventually could lead to additional pollution control requirements on industry in areas that cannot meet the standard.

EPA expects just seven counties in California will not meet the standard by the 2020 attainment date because other federal measures, including air toxics standards for power plants and vehicle emissions standards, will continue to reduce particle emissions nationwide.

Cutting particulate pollution to 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3), down from the current standard of 15 µg/m3, will cost industry as much as $350 million a year, EPA said, while projected annual health benefits are as much as $9.1 billion. Exposure to particulates, even over short periods, can cause premature death, heart attacks, and asthma attacks, the agency said.

“On days like today I'm reminded of the incredible importance of the work of this agency,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters during a telephone news conference Dec. 14.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups called the final rule burdensome.

“More nonattainment areas translate into a heavier administrative burden on states and cities, as well as devastating effects on local economies,” Bill Kovacs, the Chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, said in a statement Dec. 14. “A nonattainment designation is tantamount to a cap on new business development.”

Fine particles are emitted from sources such as vehicles, smokestacks, and fires. To get a better idea of what air quality is like near heavily traveled roads, the final rule also will require moving 52 air monitors near roadways in highly populated areas.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Dec. 14 that he expects the particulate matter final rule to be “the first in an onslaught of post-election rulemakings that will place considerable burdens on our struggling economy and eventually push us over the 'regulatory cliff.' ”

Other Standards Unchanged

The agency strengthened the annual, health-based national ambient air quality standard for fine particles, but it did not change the other particulate matter air standards.

EPA retained the existing daily standard of 35 µg/m3 for fine particles and the existing daily standard for coarse particulate matter of 150 µg/m3.

Fine particles are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller, and coarse particles are larger than 2.5 micrometers but smaller than 10 micrometers.

The House passed legislation in December 2011 that would restrict EPA's ability to regulate coarse particulate matter in rural areas, which House Republicans termed “farm dust” (237 DER A-24, 12/9/11).

“We can finally put this issue to rest,” Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, said in a statement Dec. 14. “There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about supposed regulatory overreach so this final rule will hopefully put to rest any remaining anxiety regarding 'farm dust' regulation by EPA.”

In addition, EPA retained the existing secondary air quality standards, which are meant to protect the environment: an annual standard of 15 µg/m3 for fine particles, a daily standard of 35 µg/m3 for fine particles, and a daily standard of 150 µg/m3 for coarse particles.

EPA issued a proposed rule June 14 that would have set a separate secondary daily standard for fine particles of 28 to 30 deciviews, but the agency did not finalize that provision. It said Dec. 14 that public comments made clear that the existing standards are sufficient for visibility protection.

Other Federal Rules to Help Cut Particles

EPA expects other federal regulations will help reduce particulate matter emissions over the coming years, making it easier for states to attain the revised standard.

During the telephone news conference, Jackson listed a dozen rules the agency has promulgated in recent years that will reduce particle emissions, including mercury and air toxics standards for power plants, vehicle and fuel standards, and regional haze regulations.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in August vacated one of the most significant regulations, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. It would have required power plants in 28 states to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide to help downwind states meet air quality standards for fine particulate matter and ozone. EPA is appealing the decision (EME Homer City Generation LP v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 11-1302, 8/21/12; 162 DER A-2, 8/22/12).

The cross-state rule's predecessor program, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, remains in place to reduce emissions until EPA promulgates a replacement program.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, called on EPA Dec. 14 to issue additional measures to reduce particle pollution, including a revised rule addressing pollution that crosses state lines, air toxics standards for boilers, and Tier 3 vehicle and gasoline standards.

Attainment in 2020

EPA will determine whether an area can meet the revised standard based on air quality monitored data from 2011 to 2013.

States will recommend attainment statuses in December 2013, and EPA will make the final designations in December 2014.

States will have to submit their implementation plans for reducing pollution to EPA by 2018, and states will be required to meet the standards by 2020.

Areas that cannot meet the standards will have to take additional steps to reduce pollution. Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement Dec. 14 the new particle standard “will crush manufacturers' plans for growth by restricting counties' ability to issue permits for new facilities, which makes them less attractive for new business. Essentially, existing facilities will have to be shuttered for new facilities to be built in these areas. This is not a conducive way to create jobs.”

EPA studied air quality data from 2009 to 2011 and determined that 66 counties would violate the revised annual fine particle standard.

However, Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, told reporters during the telephone news conference that she expects fewer than 66 counties actually will be designated as nonattainment areas because particle emissions will continue to fall under data from 2011 to 2013.

Emissions will fall even further over the next several years, EPA said, which is why it expects just the seven counties in California would still be in nonattainment by 2020.

Rule Resolves Cases

EPA reviewed the particulate matter standards most recently in 2006. The Clean Air Act requires the agency to review and consider revising air quality standards every five years.

During the 2006 review, EPA declined to strengthen the standards, which were set originally in 1997. The D.C. Circuit in 2009 remanded the annual fine particle standard to EPA because the agency “failed to explain adequately” why the annual standard was sufficient to protect public health (American Farm Bureau Federation v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 06-1410, order issued 2/16/12).

The Dec. 14 final rule addresses that remand, and it also resolves litigation brought by the American Lung Association, the National Parks Conservation Association, and 11 states after EPA missed an October 2011 statutory deadline to revise the standards (American Lung Ass'n v. EPA, D.D.C., No. 12-243, consent decree signed 9/4/12).

The same settlement agreement ordered EPA to sign the proposed rule June 14. The agency proposed lowering the annual standard for fine particulate matter to between 12 and 13 µg/m3, and it sought comments on a standard as low as 11 µg/m3 (77 Fed. Reg. 38,890; 116 DER A-19, 6/18/12).

“We know clearly that particle pollution is harmful at levels well below those previously deemed to be safe,” Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, said in a statement Dec. 14. “Particle pollution causes premature deaths and illness, threatening the millions of Americans who breathe high levels of it. By setting a more protective standard, the EPA is stating that we as a nation must protect the health of the public by cleaning up even more of this lethal pollutant.”

EPA released the final rule to the public Dec. 14, and it is set to be published in an upcoming issue of the Federal Register.

By Jessica Coomes  

The final rule is available at http://www.epa.gov/pm/2012/finalrule.pdf.

More information from EPA about the particulate matter standards is available at http://www.epa.gov/pm/actions.html.