EPA Finalizes Decision to Retain the Existing PM2.5 NAAQS — Single Worst Environmental Decision of the Trump Administration?

Posted on December 10, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

On Tuesday, EPA finalized its decision to retain the existing PM2.5 NAAQS of 12 ug/m3, rejecting substantial scientific evidence that PM2.5 causes significant harm at concentrations below 12 ug/m3.  In fact, as noted in one of my prior posts on this subject, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that exposure to PM2.5 at concentrations below 12 ug/m3 causes more than 10,000 deaths annually.  That hardly seems consistent with the Clean Air Act, which requires that NAAQS be set at the level requisite to protect public health “with an adequate margin of safety.”

As the Trump administration winds down, I think we can start the discussion of the single worst environmental decision made in the last four years.  There’s a lot of competition, and I welcome reader submissions, but for my money, this may well be it.

I understand that there is discussion among the Biden transition team regarding how much to prioritize action to lower the PM2.5 NAAQS.  At some level, it’s a heavy lift, because a lot of work goes in to revising a NAAQS.  The administration may conclude that its climate efforts will address particulate matter as a co-benefit.  That would certainly be true, but the NAAQS are important.  To me, they are still the core of the CAA.  That should be particularly true as a heightened focus on environmental justice emphasizes the link between environmental issues and public health.  Many of those tens of thousands of excess deaths take place in EJ communities.

Retaining the existing PM2.5 NAAQS – worst environmental decision ever by the Trump administration.  And that’s saying a lot.

EPA Remains the “Anti-Environmental Protection Agency”; Wheeler Refuses to Tighten the PM 2.5 NAAQS

Posted on April 16, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

After more than three years of ignoring science whenever it does not support this Administration’s preferred outcomes, the issue of the future of science in environmental regulation has now been well and truly joined.  Yesterday, Administrator Wheeler, disagreeing with the recommendation of EPA’s own staff, announced that EPA is proposing to retain the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 of 12 ug/m3, notwithstanding substantial evidence that PM2.5 poses significant risks even below 10 ug/m3

In the long-gone days prior to January 2017, this would be short and easy.  The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee would have said that the current standard is not protective.  NGOs and states would have sued, the D.C. Circuit would have vacated EPA’s decision, and even a right-leaning Supreme Court probably would not have thought it necessary to hear a further appeal.

Now, however, the Chair of CASAC doesn’t believe that epidemiology provides a basis for setting NAAQS and CASAC recommended keeping the current standard.  What happens when EPA’s owns science advisors don’t believe in science?  And what happens when the most outcome-based Supreme Court in living memory lies in wait?

I truly don’t know.  I suspect that the D.C. Circuit, depending upon the panel, might still find a decision to keep the current standard to be arbitrary and capricious, but I would not count on the Supreme Court affirming that decision.

In the meantime, I am curious about Administrator Wheeler.  Does he really believe what he is saying or does he just not care that this decision will fairly directly lead to thousands of additional deaths?  As EPA’s proposed rule acknowledges, NAAQS are standards,

"the attainment and maintenance of which in the judgment of the Administrator, based on such criteria and allowing an adequate margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health."

Greenwire reports that Administrator Wheeler told reporters that “there’s still a lot of uncertainty” surrounding the research supporting the lower PM2.5 NAAQS.  Of course, since the statutory standard requires “an adequate margin of safety,” one would have thought that the uncertainty supports more stringent standards, rather than less stringent ones. Indeed, ever since Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, courts have been clear that EPA must be prepared to regulate even in the face of uncertainty if it is to fulfill its mission to protect the public.

I may not be able to predict what the courts will do, but I’m confident that history will not treat this Administration kindly.  Over time, there is little doubt that the evidence against PM2.5 is only going to grow stronger.  However, by the time a future administration acts on that accumulated weight of data, thousands of people will have died needlessly.

Well done, Mr. Wheeler.

If You Thought That COVID-19 Was Bad, Try It Mixed With Some PM2.5!

Posted on April 9, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, I discussed the Administration’s guidance concerning the exercise of its enforcement discretion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now comes evidence that the guidance may actually be self-defeating.  While the administration is – understandably – trying to cut regulated industries some slack while they are trying to deal with COVID-19, it turns out that exposure to PM2.5 has a significant impact on the COVID-19 death rate.

study released earlier this week by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concludes that an increase in the ambient PM2.5 concentration of just 1 ug/m3 causes an increase of 15% in the death rate from COVID-19.  And lest you think that the results stem from other factors unique to New York City and other places particularly hard-hit by the virus, the authors took into account all of the obvious confounding factors, including:

"population density, percent of the population ≥65, percent living in poverty, median household income, percent black, percent Hispanic, percent of the adult population with less than a high school education, median house value, percent of owner-occupied housing, population mean BMI (an indicator of obesity), percent ever-smokers, [and] number of hospital beds."

A 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate for a 1 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 is an extraordinary result.  At some level, we knew it already, but let me summarize very simply.  PM2.5 is really, really, bad for you.

And so we come back to this administration.  I’ll pass over the enforcement discretion memorandum and focus instead on EPA’s apparent decision not to change the current national ambient air quality standard for PM2.5.  Of course, the current chair of the SAB doesn’t believe in basing NAAQS on epidemiological studies, but for those of us who still believe in science, this study certainly only strengthens the case for reduction in the PM2.5 NAAQS.

Will The PM NAAQS Be the Real End of Agency Deference?

Posted on October 31, 2019 by Seth Jaffe

According to Bloomberg Environment (subscription required), EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee cannot reach agreement whether to recommend that the NAAQS for PM2.5 be lowered.  Even after two years, I guess I had not realized the extent to which the scientists relied on by this administration are willing to ignore what used to be generally known as the “scientific consensus.”

As I reported last month, EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Standards released a draft reassessment of the adequacy of the PM2.5 NAAQS.  The draft states that:

"The risk assessment estimates that the current primary PM2.5 standards could allow a substantial number of PM2.5-associated deaths in the U.S.

When taken together, we reach the preliminary conclusion that the available scientific evidence, air quality analyses, and the risk assessment, as summarized above, can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current annual and 24-hour primary PM2.5 standards."

Based on the analysis in the draft, it seemed obvious to me that EPA would have to lower the NAAQS to somewhere between 8.0 ug/m3 and 10.0 ug/m3.  I assumed and predicted that EPA would propose to lower the standard as little as possible, to 10.0 ug/m3. 

It turns out that four out of six members of EPA’s significant reconstituted Clean Air Science Advisory Committee think that the current standard should be retained.  I doubt that the American Lung Association will agree.

I have previously speculated, in connection with matters ranging from BLM standards for methane emissions on federal lands to the EPA/DOT decision on CAFE standards, that, if this administration consistently flouts the scientific consensus on appropriate regulatory standards, then, at some point, courts will stop deferring to agency “scientific” conclusions.  I now wonder whether the PM2.5 rule will be the breaking point.

It’s still more likely that a court would simply rule within the confines of existing jurisprudence that a decision by EPA to retain the current PM2.5 standard would be arbitrary and capricious, even given traditional deference.  However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a court will at some point conclude that the administration has forfeited the deference it would otherwise have gotten.

When agencies just make up the science, Chevron seems almost beside the point.

A Fine Approach for Regulating Fine Particulate Matter

Posted on January 8, 2016 by Todd E. Palmer

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) is finalizing guidance documents which will simplify how air permit applicants demonstrate that their emissions do not cause or contribute to exceedances of the PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).  This guidance is based upon a technical analysis showing that direct emissions of PM2.5 from most stationary sources do not meaningfully contribute to ambient concentrations of PM2.5.  Building on this conclusion, WDNR will no longer require air dispersion modeling to be performed for PM2.5 when issuing most air permits. This novel state approach to PM2.5 regulation should adopted by other jurisdictions.

As EPA shifts its focus to regulating smaller forms of PM, the chemistry associated with these smaller pollutants has added to the complication of regulation. With respect to PM2.5, it is a pollutant emitted directly by certain emission sources (e.g., combustion processes) and is also formed secondarily in the atmosphere by the chemical interaction of precursor pollutants (NOx, SO2, ammonia). To date, states have generally implemented air permitting policies that simplify these complications. For example, states may assume that a percentage of a source’s PM10emissions consist of PM2.5 or that direct emissions of PM2.5 have the potential to significantly contribute to ambient concentrations of PM2.5. These generalities and assumptions have presented problems for stationary sources, especially when performing the air dispersion modeling attendant to receiving an air permit.

Recognizing these problems, WDNR undertook its own technical analysis which concludes that dispersion modeling of direct PM2.5emissions does not provide information useful for understanding the impact of those emissions on ambient air quality. WDNR found that direct, industrial stationary source PM2.5 emissions do not correlate with the ambient concentrations of PM2.5 in the atmosphere around a stationary source. Rather, PM2.5 exhibits characteristics more like a regional pollutant influenced by the emissions from numerous sources dispersed throughout a broad geographic region. Using this premise, WDNR will be restricting the circumstances when PM2.5 air dispersion modeling will be required when issuing air permits and the instance where sources will be subjected to PM2.5 emission limitations.

In this draft guidance, WDNR proposes to no longer require estimating PM2.5 emissions from fugitive dust sources, mechanical handling systems, grain handling operations or other low temperature PM sources. Rather, PM2.5 emission estimates will only be required for combustion and high temperature industrial processes that directly emit significant amounts of PM2.5.  For these high temperature sources, WDNR will use a “weight of evidence” approach to conclude that direct emissions of PM2.5 do not cause or exacerbate a violation of the PM2.5 NAAQS or increments in ambient air. This will greatly simplify the manner in which air permit applicants must calculate PM2.5 emissions from a project, significantly limit the circumstances in which PM2.5 modeling must be performed as part of a permit application and restrict the instances in which PM2.5 emission limitations must be included in air permits.

Preserving the Tallgrass Prairie in the Face of Stringent Air Quality Standards: The Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan

Posted on January 17, 2011 by Charles Efflandt

It is an environmental truism that increasingly stringent air quality standards can cause collateral damage – typically economic in nature. It is less common for such standards to directly impact preservation of a significant North American ecosystem.

Comprising a vast area in eastern Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, the Flint Hills ecosystem remains today the last unfragmented expanse of tallgrass prairie on the continent. Roughly two-thirds of all tallgrass prairie in North America is contained in the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills provide a unique ecosystem for numerous mammals, birds, reptiles and cattle (the surrogate for the bison that once roamed this area and that served as a keystone species in maintaining biodiversity). The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy have both identified the Flint Hills as a priority conservation action site.

Fire is a critical ecological driver in the tallgrass prairie. Lightning is nature’s tool for this process of ecological renewal. The burning of large sections of the Flint Hills was practiced for centuries by Native Americans. In more modern times, controlled burning has been utilized by conservation agencies and organizations, as well as by ranchers, as an ecological and agricultural management tool. Tallgrass prairie preservation requires frequent burning to prevent the encroachment of woody species and maintain the integrity of the plant communities and wildlife habitat. From an agricultural perspective, the burning and renewal of the tallgrass has been shown to significantly increase the productivity of the rangeland for cattle ranching purposes.

Such frequent and widespread burning, however, creates health concerns. Air modeling has shown transport of PM and ozone precursors as far east as Tennessee during the burning season. Air pollutants from Flint Hills burning have also adversely impacted or threatened the NAAQS attainment status of areas in Kansas and Missouri. With more stringent ozone regulations imminent, this conflict between ecological preservation and compliance with air quality standards will be exacerbated.

A recent ACOEL posting suggested, in the climate change context, that the severe economic consequences of the traditional legislative/regulatory process can and should be mitigated through creative voluntary community effort. With the ecologically and agriculturally beneficial practice of tallgrass burning on a collision course with NAAQS attainment, such an approach was recently embraced by the U.S. EPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, conservation and agricultural organizations and academia. The December 2010 approval of the Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan was the result of over a year of collaborative effort by these stakeholders. The key elements of the Plan include:

  • A new website with a predictive plume modeling tool for public and private decision-making.
  • Development of fire management practices to mitigate adverse health consequences and NAAQS violations associated with controlled burning.
  • A comprehensive data collection effort to better characterize prairie burning and its consequences.
  • Proposed limited legal restrictions on open burning during critical time periods.
  • Extensive outreach and education efforts, including prescribed fire training programs, public-private information sharing, and media exposure.
  • A pilot project in the spring of 2011 in two Kansas counties to implement the predictive computer modeling and fire management practices.

The Plan has been attacked by certain environmental organizations as a “smoke screen” whose objective is to facilitate EPA exemption of burning from enforcement in order to maximize beef production. These critics discount the ecological motivation for the Plan and allege that it is unlikely to adequately protect public health. I would suggest that the Plan should not be viewed as the final answer. Rather, it should be considered a working document that will evolve as the results of modeling and data collection and level of voluntary implementation are evaluated. Time will tell the extent to which the Plan can be cited as further evidence of the power of voluntary, collaborative