The Environmental Protection Agency issued rules to slash the amount of soot allowed from diesel vehicles. Soot has been linked to lung problems and premature death. / Nick Ut, AP
Over objections from the oil industry and power companies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new air quality rules today to slash the amount of fine-particle soot allowed from smokestacks, wood-burning stoves and diesel vehicles.
The EPA, required by a court order to set a new standard by Dec. 14, said 99% of U.S. counties will be able to meet it by 2020 without taking additional steps. Environmental and public health groups hailed the rules, but critics said they could force costly pollution-abatement upgrades and harm economic growth.
"We will save lives and reduce the burden of illness in our communities," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said, adding the new soot rules are based on extensive scientific research.
Soot, also known as fine particle pollution, is microscopic but can cause lung and health problems when inhaled. It's been linked to premature deaths, asthma attacks, strokes, lung cancer and heart disease. The new rules would set their maximum allowable annual standard at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, down 20% from the current 15 micrograms per cubic meter.
"Today's decision is nothing short of historic. It is the first time EPA has ever tightened the critical long-term soot standard first set 15 years ago," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group.
"I'm a mother who knows all too well how devastating an asthma attack can be," Lydia Rojas, an American Lung Association volunteer from Oxnard, Calif., said in a press release from the group hailing the new rules. Her daughter died from an asthma attack at school. "The EPA's action today will mean that other moms whose children struggle to breathe because of soot pollution can know that much cleaner air is coming."
Yet critics said the new rules come at a cost to the economy. Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry, said the standards could potentially increase prices and decrease jobs at a time when 12 million Americans remain unemployed.
"The existing standards are working and will continue improving air quality," he said in a statement. "We fear this new rule may be just the beginning of a 'regulatory cliff'" that includes tougher ozone and greenhouse gas limits.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider revising its soot standards every five years, but President Bush declined to lower them during the last review in 2006. Facing opposition from industry groups and Congressional Republicans, President Obama's EPA sought to delay new rules, arguing they needed more time to review the latest scientific research.
Eleven states, along with the American Lung Association and environmental groups, filed suit against the EPA earlier this year to force action, saying current standards jeopardize public health.
Judge Robert L. Wilkins of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the EPA on June 2 to sign a proposed rule by mid-June, which it finalized today. The states joining the lawsuit included California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The EPA said it expects fewer than 10 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States will need to take additional measures to meet the new standard by 2020.
By 2030, it said such rules will prevent up to 40,000 premature deaths, 32,000 hospital admissions and 4.7 million days of work lost due to illness. It estimates the economic value of such health benefits will range from $4 billion to $9 billion per year while implementation costs will range from $53 million to $350 million.
Twice as many Americans support as oppose stricter soot pollution rules, according to a national survey last month of 942 registered voters conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the American Lung Association.
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