EPA Declines to Limit Deadly Soot Air Pollution

Ignoring science and the law, EPA rushes to secure yet another win for polluters—to the detriment of us all.

Credit: NREL

On December 7, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule for soot pollution, leaving the federal limit at its current—inadequate, unsafe—level and putting the health of tens of millions of people at risk.

"Today's reckless decision can and should be swiftly undone by the incoming administration," says John Walke, clean air director of NRDC. "It's time polluters stopped making us sick."
 

Air pollution is deadly. It’s a global menace that contributes to millions of early deaths each year from heart disease, lung ailments, and cancer. In the U.S., millions of people are breathing in polluted air day after day and it’s imposing huge costs on our society in terms of deaths, illnesses, and reduced worker productivity.

A large share of air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, which is an inconvenient truth for the climate change deniers in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Because they know that scientific understanding of the health harms of air pollution has never been stronger, political appointees at EPA have been working hard ever since President Trump took office to undermine the agency’s mission to protect public health by ensuring that every American has clean air to breathe.

Attacks on Clean Air

Since taking office three years ago, the Trump administration has led an aggressive assault on the legal and scientific underpinnings of the Clean Air Act. These are the very components that have made it so effective at holding polluters accountable. EPA leaders have disbanded expert air pollution science panels, weakened enforcement of pollution violations, and rolled back a long list of clean air protections across a range of sources, from coal-fired power plants to vehicles to natural gas extraction projects. Unfortunately, the consequences of these reckless attacks on the Clean Air Act are making it harder for all of us to breathe. Air pollution levels around the country have risen under the Trump administration for a number of reasons, including reduced vigilance and enforcement against polluters; deadly smoke generated by unprecedented, climate change-fueled wildfires in the western United States; and summertime extreme heat episodes that continue to break records and trigger air pollution spikes. In its waning days, the Administration has rushed through a do-nothing proposal that attempts to lock in unsafe levels of soot pollution for years to come, as a respiratory pandemic rages around it.

A Reckless Plan that Endangers All

Early in the spring, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced his proposal to keep the national soot pollution limits right where they are. Despite an analysis from EPA’s own scientists that soot pollution is linked to 50,000 early deaths each year, Administrator Wheeler thought our air was clean enough.

One would have hoped that since the spring, the Administration would have taken into account the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died amidst a respiratory pandemic, the effects of which we now know are worsened by dirty air. But, yet again, Administrator Wheeler chose polluters over people, and finalized weak standards for soot pollution.

The final rule allows for dangerous levels of fine particle (soot) air pollution to persist across the country. It is a dangerous attack on public health for all sorts of reasons:

  • It fails to protect people especially vulnerable to air pollution, including children, older people, and marginalized communities that are disproportionately burdened by polluted air
  • It undermines and misrepresents science by claiming that the available evidence does not warrant stronger limits on pollution
  • Instead of following the scientific advice of leading experts, it leans heavily on the discredited views  of industry sympathizers that currently occupy the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) who themselves acknowledged an inability to interpret the science, It gives greater weight to flawed studies favored by CASAC’s fringe voices, instead of fairly considering all of the evidence
  • It follows from a rushed and corrupt review process as Wheeler’s EPA attempts to finalize the proposal during Trump’s term

Rushing to Secure Wins for Polluters

Just as appalling as the standards themselves is the sham process Wheeler’s EPA has followed to attempt to lock in these standards before the lights go out on this Administration. EPA cut unprecedented corners in its race to finalize this rule in the midst of a historic respiratory disease pandemic. In May, when NRDC and partners asked EPA to pause this proposal or at least extend the public comment deadline to allow medical professionals like nurses and doctors to review, the agency declined. In the past, EPA has held multiple public hearings for a proposal like this because of its far reaching consequences; this time around, EPA organized a limited set of online public hearings and was forced to add hearing slots because of the large public interest. And in a last-minute effort to cement its pro-polluter legacy, the Agency rushed through the interagency review process and signed a rule that flouts norms of administrative law.

NRDC Stands Up For Science and the Law

NRDC and others submitted extensive comments on the rule, spanning 184 pages, 278 attachments, and 483 footnotes debunking Wheeler’s inaccurate portrayal of the existing evidence base and highlighting all of the scientific evidence that confirms that there’s no safe level of air pollution and that EPA needs to strengthen the national standard. Fortunately, the incoming administration has signaled it will make restoring the EPA’s mission to protect people over polluters a top priority. It’s time polluters stopped making us sick. the incoming administration should follow the science and the law and take action to ensure that clean air is a reality for all. Our lives depend on it.

About the Authors

Vijay Limaye

Staff Scientist, Science Center

Emily Davis

Senior Attorney, Climate & Clean Energy Program

John Walke

Director, Clean Air, Climate & Clean Energy Program
Blog Post

NRDC responds to EPA's deadly proposal.

Blog Post

A new study points to huge health and economic benefits of this landmark law.

Blog Post

Science underpinning the Clean Air Act is under attack.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.