Federal regulators have weakened two national air pollution standards and opted not to upgrade a third.
On April 14, the Trump administration decided to maintain the current regulation for microscopic particles in the air, known as fine particulate matter or PM 2.5. Government scientists had recommended strengthening the regulations because evidence suggests that air pollution is killing 52,100 Americans prematurely each year. According to The New York Times, an April U.S. Environmental Protection Agency draft document stated that a 25 percent stricter standard could save more than 12,000 American lives per year.
Exposure to these particles is linked to premature death in those with heart or lung diseases, nonfatal heart attacks and decreased lung function, among other symptoms. These particles also exacerbate the COVID-19 death rate, according to a Harvard study that found long-term exposure to PM 2.5 increased the death rate of those with the novel coronavirus by 8 percent.
Aside from these concerns, the EPA is also changing how it calculates the health benefits of limiting mercury pollution. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, issued in 2012, focuses on reducing airborne mercury emissions from coal plants. The scrubbers in smokestacks that reduce mercury content also diminish many other air pollutants, notably particulate matter, along with soot and smog. Under the Obama administration, the EPA calculated the health benefits of reducing soot and smog alongside the health benefits of reducing mercury in its cost-benefit analysis of the rule. But the April revision from the Trump administration’s EPA no longer includes these co-benefits.
In a press release, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler emphasized that the agency is not currently removing the existing rule and stated that, “Under this action, no more mercury will be emitted into the air than before.”
But environmental advocates are concerned that the administration’s action could undermine the mercury rule in the future, along with other public health standards.
“Not counting what amounts to tens of billions of dollars in public health benefits that flow from these standards every year is a radical break from best practices,” stated Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a press release. “The decision also gives EPA a false justification to set much weaker standards for other pollutants in the future. The upending of this long-standing legal, economic and regulatory precedent on cost-benefit analysis could have far-reaching consequences for many other public health protections.”
On March 31, the EPA finalized a rollback of a 2012 auto emissions regulation. The new version requires passenger cars and trucks to average 40 miles per gallon instead of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. The new auto emissions rule would require fuel economy standards to rise 1.5 percent per year, compared to the 5 percent the 2012 regulations had specified. The industry fuel economy standards rise about 2.4 percent per year on their own, according to The New York Times.
— By Finn Halloran