Green group slams EPA failure to curb ‘dangerous levels of air pollution’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has opted to maintain the existing secondary national ambient air quality standards for sulfur and nitrogen oxides.

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The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) expressed deep disappointment on Monday over the Biden administration’s decision to retain “outdated” air quality standards for nitrogen and soot pollution. This decision comes despite growing scientific evidence that these pollutants cause significant ecological damage.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has opted to maintain the existing secondary national ambient air quality standards for sulfur and nitrogen oxides, following an evaluation of potential new benchmarks that indicated reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources would result. The EPA’s proposal, however, has not been updated in over half a century for some pollutants, leading to severe criticism from environmental groups.

Ryan Maher, a staff attorney at the CBD, criticized the EPA’s move, stating, “The EPA failed to seize this important opportunity to better protect plants and animals from these toxic pollutants.” Maher emphasized that the decision ignores recent scientific findings that highlight the adverse effects of soot, sulfur, and nitrogen air pollution on ecosystems. “Since the EPA’s last review of these pollution standards, the science showing the ecological harm from soot, sulfur, and nitrogen air pollution has become more certain,” Maher noted. “Rather than aligning its standards with this new research, the EPA has chosen to perpetuate dangerous levels of air pollution.”

The Clean Air Act mandates the EPA to set both primary (health-based) and secondary (welfare-based) national ambient air quality standards for pollutants including sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter—commonly known as soot. Critics argue that the failure to update the secondary standards reflects a broader issue of regulatory inertia that continues to endanger both environmental and public health.

The secondary standards are meant to protect public welfare, encompassing not only human health but also preventing damage to animals, crops, vegetation, and buildings. Environmental advocates like Maher argue that the EPA’s reluctance to update these standards despite clear scientific evidence is a significant oversight.

This regulatory decision follows a lawsuit filed in 2022 by the CBD and the Center for Environmental Health, which pressured the EPA into reviewing its outdated standards. As part of a settlement agreement, the EPA committed to finalizing its decision on the air quality standards by December 10, 2024. The agency has scheduled a virtual public hearing on the proposed rule on May 8, providing a platform for further public input.

Furthermore, the EPA has been criticized for not performing a mandatory Endangered Species Act consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Services. This consultation is crucial to understand how the allowed pollution levels under the proposed standards might affect endangered plants and animals. “Air pollution standards must protect endangered plants and wildlife, but the agency failed to follow the law, or the science, to fully address this toxic air pollution’s harms to the environment,” Maher elaborated.

In a separate but related issue, the EPA made a decision to reject an industry petition that sought to delist energy turbines as a major source of air pollution. This decision was met with approval from several environmental groups, including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, California Communities Against Toxins, and the Southwestern Environmental Law Center. James Pew, Earthjustice’s director of federal clean air practice, commended the decision, stating, “Today’s decision upholds critical environmental protections that are essential for safeguarding public health, particularly in communities that have historically borne the brunt of industrial pollution.”

Pew further highlighted the broader implications of maintaining strict pollution controls, “Keeping pollution control requirements in place is not just a matter of regulatory compliance; it’s a fundamental environmental justice issue.” He emphasized that the EPA’s action is a step in the right direction, contrasting sharply with the agency’s stance on nitrogen and soot pollution standards.

The final word from Ryan Maher echoes many other environmental advocates: “The science is clearer than ever; now, our regulations must catch up for the sake of our planet’s future.”

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