Trump weakens US air pollution control

By: Christer Ågren

The Trump administration announced on 14 April that it rejected a recommendation from staff scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to tighten air quality regulations for particulate matter (PM), arguing the current standards are adequate to protect human health. 

According to the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set national air quality standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter and five other pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment (the other pollutants are ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and lead). 

The law also requires EPA to review the standards every five years to ensure that they provide adequate health and environmental protection, and to update those standards as necessary. Primary standards are designed to protect human health at a level sufficient to provide a margin of safety, while secondary standards are designed to protect the environment.

The current primary standard for fine particles (PM2.5) were adopted in 2012 and set a limit of 12 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) as an annual average. In its draft Policy Assessment, published in September 2019, EPA staff recommended tightening the primary annual limit to a level between 8 and 12 µg/m3, while leaving the remaining suite of PM standards unchanged for both PM2.5 and coarse particulate matter (PM10).

In their comments from December 2019 to the EPA’s Policy Assessment, three leading US environmental organisations (Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council) stated that “the draft Integrated Science Assessment (ISA) includes robust evidence of mortality risks at levels as low as 8 µg/m3,” and that “additional studies of the PM2.5-mortality relationship conducted outside of the US and Canada support this finding.” They concluded that “an annual exposure level of 12 µg/m3 is not adequately protective of public health.”

Research noted in the EPA’s own Policy Assessment found that maintaining the PM2.5 standard at its current level could allow as many as 52,000 premature deaths a year in just 47 urban areas.

Strengthening the primary PM2.5 standard by just 1 microgram, from 12 to 11 µg/m3, could save about 12,000 lives per year, according to a 2017 study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In early April, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also published new research indicating that the coronavirus causes a higher death toll among patients in parts of the country with increased levels of fine particulate pollution. 

“It’s especially egregious that EPA is making this announcement in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic – a public health crisis that evidence increasingly suggests is dangerous to people living in areas with higher air pollution levels,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Mercury rule undermined

On 16 April, the Trump administration’s EPA finalised a rule that undermines federal standards for mercury, lead and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The rule leaves the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) in place for now, but could pave the way for lawsuits and prevent similar regulations from being implemented in the future.

Mercury, lead and other airborne poisons from power plants can damage children’s developing nervous systems and reduce their ability to think and learn. Other hazardous air pollutants cause numerous health hazards, including cancer, heart attacks, strokes and various respiratory illnesses.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the MATS rule is saving more than 10,000 lives per year, and annually avoiding 130,000 asthma attacks and nearly 5,000 heart attacks. In 2016, EPA projected that the monetised benefits for clean air and health in the US from MATS would be as much as USD 90 billion per year, including 540,000 days when Americans will not miss work or school. The annual compliance costs to industry were projected to be less than USD 10 billion, and actual implementation has shown compliance costs to be even lower. Virtually all US power plants that burn coal or oil have been complying with the standards since 2015–2016.

The new EPA rule creates an alternative method of calculating the costs and benefits of curbing mercury pollution that risks undermining the legal underpinnings of controls on mercury and many other pollutants. By restricting and reducing the positive health effects of regulations on paper and raising their economic costs, the new method could be used to justify loosening restrictions on any pollutant.

Previously, the EPA tallied not just the benefits of reducing mercury but also co-benefits like cuts in sulphur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other pollutants that were also curbed by the emission abatement equipment. However, under the new rule, such co-benefits will no longer be included in the cost-benefit analyses, but only direct benefits.

In a press release by the Natural Resources Defense Council, former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, who is now head of the NRDC, said: “This is an absolute abomination. This final rule will increase the risk of more kids with asthma and brain damage, and more people with cancer. If these standards are overturned, there would be nothing to prevent power plants from immediately emitting a range of toxic pollutants—and you can bet they will.”

“On top of that, utilities already are complying with the mercury standards and oppose this rollback. As a result, we’ve seen a nearly 90 per cent reduction in the brain-damaging and life-threatening impacts of mercury that has improved health outcomes for millions of kids. And it was accomplished without threatening electricity reliability or consumer prices. The only ones who benefit from this are powerful polluters – at the expense of our health, and our children’s health. We can do better, we must do better, and we are going to fight this in court to make sure we do.”


Fuel efficiency rollback

On 31 March, the Trump administration completed a rollback of US vehicle fuel efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions standards adopted in 2012. Under the 2012 rules, automakers were to have averaged about 5 per cent annual increases in fuel efficiency from 2021 to 2026, but the new requirements lower this to 1.5 per cent per year, meaning that by 2026 the US vehicle fleet of cars will average only 40 miles per gallon (approximately 5.9 litres/100 km) instead of the 54 mpg (4.3 litres/100 km) expected to be achieved under the 2012 rule. 

Less efficient vehicles mean that more fossil fuel will be burned, resulting in significantly higher emissions of the major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Lower fuel efficiency will also increase harmful emissions into the air, resulting in higher healthcare costs.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat), said to Reuters that the decision will harm public health and endanger US economic security. “The Trump administration’s anti-science decision to gut fuel standards will unleash massive amounts of pollution into the air at the worst possible time,” Pelosi said, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Enforcement suspended

The Hill reported that on 26 March the US EPA issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws, telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.

The temporary policy, for which the EPA has set no end date, would allow any number of industries to skirt environmental laws, with the EPA saying it will not “seek penalties for non-compliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.”

In a written comment to The Hill, Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, called it a moratorium on enforcing the nation's environmental laws and an abdication of the agency’s duty.

The move comes after the EPA has been under pressure from a number of industries, including the oil industry, to suspend enforcement of a number of environmental regulations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Christer Ågren

Sources: The Hill, 26 March 2020; Financial Times and Reuters, 31 March 2020; The Guardian and Reuters, 14 April 2020; New York Times, Reuters and NRDC, 16 April 2020.

Link to US EPA NAAQS website:

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