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New Federal Regulations Regarding Soot Create Challenges for States

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Fine particle pollution – also known as soot – is a cause of respiratory disease, increased asthma symptoms, cancer, and cardiovascular dysfunction. Incomplete combustion of organic materials such as wood, fuel oil, plastics, and household refuse create soot – which is released from smokestacks, vehicle exhaust, wildfires, agricultural work and some forms of cooking. Soot is smaller in diameter than a human hair and is small enough to pass through human bloodstreams after inhalation.

This year, the Environmental Protection Agency implemented much more stringent standards for the release of soot into the air. The EPA estimated that these stronger standards — which changed from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air – will save lives and prevent approximately 4,500 premature deaths; save 290,000 lost workdays and yield up to $46 billion in net health benefits by 2032. The EPA further estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce the levels of soot in the air, there could be as much as $77 in human health benefits in 2032. 

The EPA did not lower the 24-hour standard for fine particulate from its current threshold of 35 micrograms — a move that would have safeguarded against short-term outbreaks of pollution.  These short-term outbreaks include things such as malfunctions at refineries and can also be life-threatening. The regulations are the first changes to these standards in over a decade. 

The new rule does not impose pollution controls on specific industries. Instead, it lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter for overall air quality. The EPA will use air sampling to identify counties and other areas that do not meet the new standard. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. States that do not meet the new standard by 2032 could face penalties. The new EPA standards will also support states and Tribes in implementing the new clean air standard. The EPA expects that 99 percent of U.S. counties will be able to meet the revised annual standard with actions already in place.  EPA will exclude data associated with exceptional events related to smoke from wildfires.

For some states, however, these standards may create a burden for local businesses. In particular, California faces the biggest challenge in meeting these regulations. Of the 52 counties that are expected to be out of compliance by 2032, 23 would be in California. For example, the Bakersfield area had an average concentration of soot has been 17.8 micrograms per cubic meter between 2019 and 2021 and was first in the nation regarding soot levels. This is an area where oil drilling and agricultural dust contributes to the high level of soot. The Los Angeles area was ranked fourth in the nation with a concentration of 14.2 micrograms per cubic meter. The levels in Los Angeles are created by cooking, residential heating, and road dust from vehicles. These types of emissions are costly and much more difficult to control. 

The new standards will put these counties – and many others in California – out of compliance.  This may cause permits for businesses to be delayed or denied, when some estimate that the activities related to businesses contribute smaller amounts to the soot in the environment than non-commercial activities. If permits are limited, economic growth in these areas could also be impacted – including limiting new manufacturing facilities.

Despite these challenges, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) supports the changes from the EPA. CARB estimates that lowering standard could prevent 4,600 annual premature deaths, 850 heart and lung disease hospitalizations, and 2,100 asthma emergency room visits. Further, CARB estimates that over half of the sources of these emissions come from federally regulated activities such as ships, locomotives, and airplanes. CARB has encouraged the EPA to further strengthen oversight to these industries and “approve waiver requests” from California industries that are impacted by the new regulations. This statement may be the first shot across the bow to make sure that California has the ability to satisfy its businesses and have longer to work with the EPA to meet these regulations.