Public health advocates and others are expressing concern that EPA could push back its planned non-binding July deadline for deciding on whether to tighten its particulate matter (PM) national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS), while industry groups are circulating a new report warning of the impacts of tightening the NAAQS.
In April, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she expected to decide on whether to propose a revision to the PM NAAQS in July, according to press reports. But an agency spokeswoman now says a final decision will be made "later this summer." The proposal will have to undergo potentially weeks of White House Office of Management & Budget review prior to its release, which sources say makes it unlikely EPA will issue the proposal this month.
"There's always a concern" that the proposed revision could be delayed further, one public health source says, adding that such delays are not unique to the Obama administration. The agency for example has repeatedly delayed its self-imposed, non-binding deadlines for issuing a highly anticipated revision to the Bush-era ozone NAAQS.
But the source says there is an urgent need for EPA to quickly propose a tightening of the PM standards, adding that the pollutant "is the most lethal" of the six criteria pollutants that also includes ozone and lead.
A delay from July would not be the first time EPA has pushed back its timing for releasing the proposed PM revision. The agency in its spring 2010 regulatory agenda predicted having a proposed rule out by December 2010 and a final rule by August 2011. EPA in its fall 2010 regulatory agenda issued last December then punted its projected date for a proposed rule to March 2011, also delaying issuance of a final rule until November 2011.
But after agency staff delayed by several months a final policy assessment for a revised NAAQS, EPA pushed back the proposal date to July and no longer has a predicted date for issuing a final revised PM standard, according to the spring 2011 regulatory agenda posted this month.
While EPA this spring declined to discuss the reasons behind the delay in issuing the final policy assessment, sources suggested EPA's massive workload -- including reviews of other air rules including an ozone NAAQS revision currently under White House review -- could have been the reason behind the PM NAAQS delay.
The Clean Air Act mandates that EPA review its NAAQS every five years to determine whether to revise an ambient standard. EPA last revised the PM NAAQS in September 2006, meaning that under the statutory requirements the agency should make a decision on whether to revise the standard by September.
Activists have sued over other NAAQS when EPA has missed the five-year deadline and won court orders setting a binding deadline for revisions, though no group has yet sued over the PM standard.
"We want to get it out. We want that happening," the source says of revisions to the PM NAAQS, adding that activists are pleased that EPA is looking at strengthening the levels to be more protective of public health and that a revised standard "drives everything" in terms of moving forward on air quality improvements.
EPA staff in their final policy paper outlined options for revising the PM standard, which is currently set at 15 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), saying that new data "most strongly supports" a standard in the 11-12 ug/m3 range. Staff also reiterated earlier draft recommendations to either retain the existing 24-hour coarse particulate matter (PM10) standard of 150 ug/m3 or tighten that standard to between 65 and 85 ug/m3, but in the latter case allow states to exceed the stricter limit more often than the existing PM10 standard by using a different form.
GOP, Industry Opposition
Any tightening of the NAAQS for PM2.5 or PM10 will likely prompt significant push-back from Republican lawmakers and industry groups that have long criticized the economic costs of the six NAAQS.
For example, agriculture and mining groups strongly oppose any tightening of the standard for PM10, also known as coarse PM. The sectors are large sources of PM10 but say there is little they can do to cut emissions, and fear that a more stringent standard triggering stricter state controls on PM10 sources could harm their industries, especially for those located in more arid regions of the United States.
Some lawmakers are also trying to block EPA from making any change to the standards, attaching a rider to the pending House EPA fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill that would block the agency from using any funds in FY12 for making changes to the PM10 standard. House lawmakers are beginning floor debate on the bill July 25.
In the latest effort to fight any EPA plans to tighten the PM standards, a coalition of agriculture and industry groups known as the Coarse Particulate Matter Coalition sent an updated study to the agency arguing that a tighter PM standard would have significantly greater impact in Western and Midwest states.
The report, sent July 1 to the agency, raises several concerns with EPA's forthcoming revision, focusing in particular on the nature of PM10 and how individual facilities would comply with a stricter NAAQS. While noting that EPA staff have given equal weight to retaining the current PM10 standard and strengthening it, the report argues that the suggested revision would be significantly more stringent than the existing standard.
The report argues that "the coarse fraction of PM10 travels only short distances and has primarily a local impact," meaning that PM10 has only a "localized impact." But given that "Agricultural and other fugitive dust sources must maintain compliance with the NAAQS in all areas at and beyond their property line," the report argues that "the NAAQS is more stringent as applied in areas close to the sources than as applied to the widely spaced, sparsely located county PM10," a concern exacerbated "when modeling, rather than monitoring, is required to show NAAQS compliance."
The industry report also argues that, given PM10 spikes caused by high winds and other natural conditions, "one of the major issues affecting the stringency of the potentially revised NAAQS is EPA's exceptional events policy. The potentially revised NAAQS will be extremely stringent if EPA chooses to ignore all but the most severe PM10 concentration spikes due to high winds and wildfires," adding that the NAAQS' stringency "also increases if agencies operating the monitors are unable or unwilling to identify concentration spikes due to natural factors."
The report argues that the "potentially revised NAAQS of 85 μg/m3 on a 98th percentile basis penalizes the West, Southwest, and Midwest due to PM10 concentration-spiking conditions largely associated with weather conditions and the mix of natural and agricultural sources that are beyond reasonable and practical control measures."
The report in turn recommends that EPA retain the current PM10 NAAQS and "include a comprehensive and clear exceptional events identification procedure" in the PM10 NAAQS, among various recommendations.
In a letter to EPA accompanying the report, the coalition takes their recommendations one step further, suggesting that the weaker form up for consideration for the 65-85 ug/m3 range be applied to the current 150 ug/m3 limit for the PM standard. "This would not be a significant relaxation because the Exceptional Events Rule, which was intended to address this issue, has not been effective as discussed in our Report," the letter states.