With very few exceptions, state level mining regulators seem unwilling or unable to exercise permitting and enforcement strategies to curtail this problem. For this reason, Appalachian Voices began working in 2022 to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate matter, also referred to as PM 2.5 or soot.
PM 2.5 is a lethal combination of metals, organic matter, acids and other substances so tiny that they can be inhaled and delivered directly into the bloodstream. These airborne pollutants are emitted by tailpipes, power plants and numerous other industries. In our region, coal mine dust is an additional source of this pollutant.
Unfortunately, in January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed only a modest improvement to these standards, despite a mountain of scientific evidence demonstrating that much stronger action is necessary to protect public health.
EPA has proposed replacing the current PM 2.5 annual average standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter with a new standard somewhere between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. For reference, the World Health Organization suggests exposure be limited to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, and EPA’s own scientific advisors point out that a standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter would prevent about 5,000 more premature deaths each year as compared to 9 micrograms per cubic meter.Exposure to, and inhalation of, soot leads to increased mortality rates, hospitalizations and visits to the emergency room. It is also linked to grave illnesses and health risks including asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, heart disease, COPD, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, low birth weight, greater risk of preterm birth and higher rates of infant mortality.
Across the nation, the deadly impacts of particulate matter pollution are borne out worst by communities of color, who are more likely to live in close proximity to polluting industries. According to an analysis by Earthjustice, Hispanic individuals are 25% more likely to die of particulate matter exposure than white individuals are. Black individuals are 300% more likely.
Because of EPA’s failure to propose the strictest limits, many communities of color will see minimal change to rates of mortality from air pollution. For the Black community, EPA’s proposal will barely begin to address the disparity in exposure. EPA could reduce the black mortality rate from PM 2.5 pollution by 37% if it sets the standard at 8 micrograms per cubic meter. Contrast that to the higher end of EPA’s proposed 9-10 microgram range, which will only lead to a 6% reduction in mortality, Earthjustice reports.
On one level, the proposed rule is a small step in the right direction, and we all owe our gratitude to leaders in the public health and environmental justice communities whose steadfast efforts have forced EPA’s hand on the matter.
But, on the other hand, by taking such a tepid half-measure, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and President Joe Biden are precluding the possibility for much more effective action along any reasonable timeline. It is particularly troubling that EPA’s proposal would do so very little for communities of color, utterly failing to live up to the agency’s own environmental justice goals.
As for the coal mine dust issue that first pulled Appalachian Voices into this effort, a stronger PM 2.5 standard is only part of the answer. To truly address this problem, state regulators must diligently monitor air quality in mining communities — currently glaringly absent in state data collection efforts. Then, state and federal authorities would have to work together to carry out permitting and enforcement strategies that ensure the PM 2.5 standard is being met in every community.
Please join Appalachian Voices in calling on the EPA to do its part and finalize a PM 2.5 rule no higher than 8 micrograms per cubic meter. EPA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until March 28, 2023.