Washington, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthened air pollution rules for particulate matter pollution, as it released its final National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Under the Clean Air Act, NAAQS set baseline air quality standards for the whole country for six common, harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter (also known as soot or fine dust) and ground-level ozone (also known as smog).
Since 2012, the annual average standard for fine particulate matter has been set at 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Since that time, a large body of scientific evidence has concluded that this level is not adequate to protect public health. Experts, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, have argued for a standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter in order to protect human health. Today, the EPA lowered the standard from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. Unfortunately, the new rule retains the prior 24-hour standard at 35 micrograms per cubic meter .
The new standard represents an important step forward for public health protections and for reducing a deadly disproportionate burden on communities of color. Though not as strong as the rule public health advocates pushed for, the EPA’s action is the latest in a decades-long series of actions to save lives and reduce pollution. Pollution reductions resulting from this rule will also support economic growth in the impacted communities, even though polluters routinely make overblown claims about costs.
“To evaluate air quality and enforce this new standard, we now need the EPA and state regulators to expand their air monitoring programs,” said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “This is especially critical in low-income areas and communities of color where high levels of dust and soot are most common, and in rural communities where regulators have historically collected minimal data.”
“We urge the EPA to swiftly enforce the updated standards and expand air quality monitoring to ensure tangible improvements in air quality across the nation,” said Patrice Simms, Earthjustice Vice President of the Healthy Communities program. “This action is not just about regulatory changes, it’s about saving lives and addressing the disproportionate impact on communities of color that are breathing more air pollution than white communities.”
The NAAQS rule on fine particulate matter comes over three years after the previous administration kept outdated 2012 standards in place, despite robust evidence that these were insufficient to protect the country’s lungs from toxic levels of fine particulates. Shortly after, Earthjustice sued on behalf of the American Lung Association and a coalition of public health and environmental advocacy groups. In response, in June 2021, the EPA announced it would reconsider the standards it is now unveiling.
Fine particulate matter pollution stems in large part from fossil fuel combustion for electricity generation, manufacturing, transportation and agriculture. In much of Appalachia, fugitive coal mine dust is also a significant source of both fine and coarse (larger) particulate matter. Fine particulate matter pollution kills nearly 100,000 people in the United States every year, and causes asthma attacks, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for cardiopulmonary diseases. It is also linked to cancer.
Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to higher-than-average levels of this dangerous pollutant. The EPA found that the 2012 standard leaves Latinos with a 25% higher mortality rate and Black communities with a mortality rate three times greater than white communities due to fine particulate exposure.
Since 2023, Appalachian Voices has worked with grassroots groups and individuals in dozens of communities near polluting industries in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to directly monitor fine particulate matter levels through the Upper South and Appalachia Citizen Air Monitoring Project.
Starting in March 2024, for the next three years, the project will produce quarterly reports on particulate matter concentrations in these communities. The EPA and state regulators rely on their own data to determine compliance with NAAQS, but government air monitoring stations can be few and far between, and the data they produce does not reflect conditions in every community. Data collected through the Upper South and Appalachia Citizen Air Monitoring Project will help the residents of participant communities better understand air quality and potential exposure risks in their immediate areas. Unfortunately, the West Virginia Legislature is currently advancing a bill that would suppress regulators’ ability to evaluate community air monitoring data.