Review panel urges EPA to tighten particulate curbs

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

EPA must tighten Clean Air Act limits on fine particle concentrations to protect public health, an expert panel said today in a set of formal recommendations released just as industry allies were preparing to argue against any tightening.

Existing standards that set limits on annual and 24-hour exposure “are not protective of public health,” the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel said in a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The current annual standard — 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air — should be reduced to between 8 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the panel said; the yearly threshold of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air should similarly be chopped to a number between 25 and 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The 20-member panel, which has no official standing, previously served as expert advisers to EPA before then-acting Administrator Wheeler fired them last October. Wheeler, who has since won Senate confirmation to lead the agency, later described that decision as a streamlining move for the legally required review. Critics, however, saw it as part of a broader campaign to skew the results in favor of the status quo. The panel’s work is being underwritten by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group critical of EPA’s handling of science.

The recommendations released today track what the panel’s chairman, North Carolina State University engineering professor Chris Frey, had outlined earlier this month after the group deliberated for two days (Greenwire, Oct. 14). They are also roughly in tune with a draft EPA “policy assessment” that concluded the existing PM2.5 standards may not be strong enough to prevent “a substantial number” of premature deaths.

In its letter, the panel commended employees in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation for assembling the draft assessment “under extenuating, unprecedented and inappropriate constraints.” The group also charged EPA is putting speed ahead of scientific rigor in truncating the review process for the particulate standards. Once scheduled to end in 2022, the review is now supposed to terminate by late next year.

As grounds for the accelerated schedule, Wheeler has cited a Clean Air Act requirement that the reviews of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and five other pollutants be conducted on a rolling five-year cycle.

In this instance, however, the last review of the particle standards ended in 2012, meaning EPA has already missed the five-year mark.

And while that cycle is a matter of law, “it is also a matter of law that these must be science-based reviews,” the panel members said in today’s letter. They urged Wheeler to reinstate the panel officially and also to create a similar body to aid in a separate fast-track review of the ground-level ozone standards.

So far, Wheeler, a former lobbyist whose clients included the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, has shown no sign of budging, although he did create a pool of a dozen consultants to provide outside expertise for both reviews. Members of the independent panel aren’t expecting EPA to heed its advice; they hope, however, that federal judges will be more receptive if the review’s final results are challenged in court.

Fine particles, often labeled soot, are dubbed PM2.5 because they are no more than 2.5 microns in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair. Such particles are linked to an array of cardiovascular and lung problems, including an increased risk of premature death in some circumstances. In the previous review ending in 2012, EPA opted to tighten the annual standard from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to the current level of 12 micrograms.

Starting at noon today, an official EPA body known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) launched a public teleconference that also revolves around the findings in the draft policy assessment. On Thursday and Friday, the seven-member committee is scheduled to meet near EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to discuss the draft assessment face to face.

Today’s teleconference, however, will be taken up with public feedback, according to the agenda. Almost 20 people or organizations, including the independent review panel, have signed up to speak or provided written comments.

Urging EPA to follow the panel’s advice is George Thurston, a professor at New York University’s School of Medicine and representative of the North American Chapter of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology.

“The latest scientific evidence indicates that the present particulate matter air quality standards are not sufficient to protect public health, and need to be made stricter,” Thurston wrote in comments posted on the committee’s website.

Industry advocates and conservative organizations disagree. “Taken together, currently available scientific evidence and risk-based information does not provide sufficient evidence to call into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the current annual and 24-hour PM2.5 standards,” Julie Goodman, a toxicologist with Gradient Corp., said at the call’s outset. The American Petroleum Institute is footing the bill for her participation, Goodman said.

Going further was the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank often opposed to tighter environmental regulation. The foundation has submitted an administrative petition asking EPA to loosen the current PM2.5 standards, Ted Hadzi-Antich, a senior attorney for the foundation’s Center for the American Future, wrote in his own comments.

In that filing, Hadzi-Antich cited a 2016 paper by former CASAC Chairman Roger McClellan that there is “a growing body of evidence of a lack of influence of ambient PM2.5 concentrations on mortality.”

Hadzi-Antich added that other researchers, including CASAC’s current chairman, Denver consultant Tony Cox, have “come to similar conclusions” and urged the committee to review their work before making its final recommendations to EPA.