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The EPA refuses to tighten air quality standards despite the pandemic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it will not work to lower levels of particulate matter, thus not further reducing air pollution, despite the recommendations of its own scientists to do so.

What does this mean for all Americans?

As Electrek reported last week, a Harvard University study at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, updated on April 5, confirmed a direct correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and a higher coronavirus death rate.

Under the Clean Air Act, particulate matter is among dangerous air pollutants covered by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which the EPA is required to review once every five years. But the last review was completed in 2012 — they’re three years late.

Under the current standard, there are an estimated 52,100 premature deaths a year. The EPA’s own analysis by staff scientists showed that strengthening the standard by 25% could save 12,500 lives a year.

As the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air director and senior attorney John Walke’s tweet thread (below, and click on the link to see Walke’s full thread) methodically demonstrates, EPA head Andrew Wheeler chose to ignore that information by leaving the fine particle threshold at PM2.5 and coarse particle threshold at PM10.

What do former EPA staffers think?

Electrek asked two former EPA professionals about yesterday’s announcement by the EPA to not tighten pollution standards during a pandemic.

Dr. H. Christopher Frey is a North Carolina State professor of environmental engineering. He is chair of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel (IPMRP), and former chair of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Frey replied:

Policy decisions have to be made before the science is fully completed, which is an ongoing process. In addition, we have to look at the real-world health impact of air pollution on actual people, and there is a tremendous amount of variation and exposures in how each person responds to particulate matter pollution.

That said, despite uncertainty, we have robust scientific findings that show exposure to fine particles causes premature death. We found unequivocally and unanimously that the current fine particle standard is not adequate to protect public health.

EPA’s justification for maintaining current air pollution standards is untrue and nonsensical and contradicts the findings of the IPMRP.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, former assistant associate administrator at the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, also replied. He said:

We know that people in communities of color, who suffer the most from high levels of air pollution, are dying at alarming rates across America from COVID-19. Once again, this administration is ignoring the science and putting the interests of polluting industries above the needs of citizens from across the country in red and blue states — it’s unconscionable.

What do environmental groups think?

Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated:

This administration is passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans — choosing instead to do nothing. That’s indefensible — especially amid a health crisis that is hitting people who live in communities with high levels of air pollution the hardest.

This reckless decision is made even more egregious coming on the heels of two big pushes to make our air even dirtier just last week — rolling back vehicle emissions standards and giving industry a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for air pollution during the pandemic. Now more than ever, our leaders should be protecting the American people, not the polluters who are making them sick.

Matthew Davis, legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, said:

The last thing we should be doing right now is making it harder to breathe. This would have been a bad policy decision even before we were facing a pandemic that early research indicates is exacerbated by exactly this kind of air pollution — now it is simply unthinkable.

The Trump administration’s disregard for science and scientists’ advice in the middle of a public health crisis is shameful — this favor for polluting industries is a great risk to public health.

What do the EPA itself and lawmakers think?

EPA head Wheeler stated:

The US has made incredible strides in reducing particulate matter concentrations across the nation.

Based on review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisers, we are proposing to retain existing PM standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment.

Interestingly, the EPA’s press release ends with a long list of lawmakers’s quotes under the headline, “Public Officials Voice Support for EPA’s Action.” There are quotes from 13 lawmakers, and every single one of them is Republican. Only Carol Miller (R-WV) sits on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Why did no one else on that committee provide a quote?

Electrek contacted the EPA press email address, asking why no expressions of support were collected from Democratic lawmakers. We did not receive a reply.

But Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Representative Frank Pallone, Jr (D-NJ) released a statement about the decision:

In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that fine particle pollution leads to illness and death, Administrator Wheeler’s refusal to strengthen the PM2.5 air quality standard comes as an insult, both to Americans and to all that EPA stands for. In case the administrator hasn’t noticed, we are in the depths of a pandemic — one which preys on those with respiratory illnesses, and which has shown to be even more dangerous and deadly for communities with long-term exposure to fine particle pollution. Today’s announcement is a callous refusal to fulfill EPA’s duty to protect human health and the environment, and yet another failure of leadership from the Trump administration. The health and lives of more Americans will be needlessly put at risk because of it.

Electrek’s Take

We think the following quote on the EPA press release that expresses support pretty much sums up what the EPA’s true agenda is under Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

Congressman Alex Mooney (WV-R):

I am pleased to hear the EPA is maintaining the current national PM standards. After eight years of former President Obama’s War on Coal, President Donald Trump’s leadership is saving jobs in our coal industry. This decision will improve air quality while protecting West Virginia energy jobs.

In Matthew Davis’ words, this decision is shameful. Our entire country’s health is being thrown to the fossil-fuel wolves.

And Mooney, we’ve got news for you. Your coal industry is a goner. Start your renewables plans in West Virginia.

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.