EPA proposes moderate improvements for public health; must do more

January 6, 2023

Willie Dodson, Appalachian Voices, willie@appvoices.org, (276) 870-5843
Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org, (215) 671-6529

Washington, D.C. — Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed important but insufficient updated National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, for particulate matter pollution, commonly known as soot. The agency proposed that the annual average standard for fine particulate matter be lowered from 12 micrograms to a range of 9-10 micrograms per cubic meter. While this is an improvement, the proposal fails to reflect the stronger recommendations of EPA’s independent outside expert scientific advisers and a broad group of community, health and environmental groups calling for the standard to be lowered to 8 micrograms per cubic meter. Under the Clean Air Act, NAAQS set a baseline standard for air quality across the United States for particulate matter, and ground level ozone, also known as smog.

The NAAQS rule on particulate matter comes nearly two years after Trump’s EPA kept outdated 2012 standards in place, despite robust evidence that they were too lax to protect the country’s lungs from harmful levels of deadly soot. Soot causes thousands of premature deaths every year. In response, Earthjustice sued on behalf of a coalition of health and environmental advocacy groups to secure stronger protections from soot. As a result, EPA announced in June 2021 that it would review the standards and is now unveiling new, stronger protections.

“EPA’s proposed change to limits is welcome and disappointing at the same time,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian field coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “The proposal is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In Appalachia, our people are breathing fugitive mine dust and toxic emissions from numerous industries. Time and again, state regulatory practices have fallen short in curbing the impacts of these industries. Fugitive coal mine dust in particular has not been regulated in any meaningful way. With this sort of lax state-level enforcement, we have had to look to the EPA for bold action to protect our health, and today they have let us down.”

Fine particulate matter pollution stems in large part from fossil fuel combustion happening in electricity generation, manufacturing, transportation, and even agriculture. In Appalachia, it is also caused by wind erosion of barren surface coal mines, as well as stockpiles, belt systems and transportation infrastructure associated with the mining of coal. Exposure causes premature death, asthma attacks, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for cardiopulmonary diseases; exposure is also linked to increased rates of infant mortality, diabetes and cognitive impairment. Fine particulate matter air pollution is of particular danger to children, reducing lung development, causing asthma and impairing the immune system. The elderly and those with chronic disease face heightened risks, too.

“This delayed proposed rule on soot is a disappointment and a missed opportunity overall,” said Seth Johnson, Earthjustice attorney. “Though aspects of EPA’s proposal would somewhat strengthen important public health protections, EPA is not living up to the ambitions of this administration to follow science, protect public health and advance environmental justice. Studies show that old soot standards allow deadly levels of pollution. EPA could save nearly 20,000 lives with stricter protections than what it proposes. We urge EPA to hear communities, not industrial polluters, and strengthen this rule. Overburdened communities have the right to breathe clean air.”

Appalachian Voices monitors airborne particulate matter in communities impacted by the mining and burning of coal, and works with residents of these areas to pursue regulatory action to improve air quality. In July, Appalachian Voices was among more than 100 grassroots organizations across the country that sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan urging him to enact an annual average PM standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter.

Over 63 million people in the United States experience unhealthy spikes in daily soot pollution, and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to higher than average levels of this dangerous pollutant.

EPA will take public comments for 60 days. The comment period will begin when the proposal is published in the Federal Register. The agency is also planning a virtual public hearing.


Appalachian Voices is a leading nonprofit advocate for a healthy environment and just economy in the Appalachian region, and a driving force in America’s shift from fossil fuels to a clean energy future.