WASHINGTON The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday identified 225 counties in 20 states that don’t meet new clean air standards designed to protect against one of the tiniest but most harmful pollutants — microscopic soot.
The counties and the District of Columbia will have to move quickly to come into compliance. They have three years to devise a pollution-reduction plan for fine particles and then must meet federal standards by 2010.
Failure to comply could mean a county will have to limit development and its state could lose federal highway dollars.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt announced the list, which included 18 fewer counties than the agency identified in a preliminary report in June. He emphasized the agency was for the first time specifically regulating for fine particles, or soot, that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter — 1/30th the width of a human hair. Such pollution comes from power plants, car exhaust, diesel-burning trucks, wood-burning stoves and other sources.
EPA considers it potentially the most significant air quality health standard, because soot can penetrate deeply into the lungs.
“This is not a story about the air getting dirtier,” Leavitt told a news conference. “It is a story about higher, more stringent standards and healthier air.”
About 95 million people live in the 225 counties and the nation’s capital. EPA estimates the new standard, once met, will prevent at least 15,000 premature deaths, 95,000 cases of bronchitis and 10,000 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
All but three of the states — Missouri, California and Montana — are east of the Mississippi River. The counties and states at issue might modify transportation plans, require new pollution controls when factories expand or impose stricter vehicle emission and inspection programs.
“We’re going to implement over the course of the next few months new national tools,” Leavitt said. “In essence we’re going to do the same thing for smokestacks that we have done for tailpipes.”
In some cases, the EPA could grant five-year extensions, letting jurisdictions take up to 2015 to comply with the new rule.
Environmentalists say states will find it tough to impossible to meet the standard without accompanying action to reduce soot pollution from power plants. President Bush decided last week to delay at least until March putting in place a companion regulation he promised on the campaign trail that would address pollution drifting among states.
“This is also a story about EPA failing to finalize rules to clean up power plant pollution,” said Michael Shore, an air policy specialist at Environmental Defense, an advocacy group. “The Bush administration frankly deserves a lump of coal for its failure to protect the health of our children from power plant pollution.”
The largest concentrations of counties in noncompliance with the new soot standard are in the Los Angeles basin and interior central California; the urban corridor from New York City to Washington; the Ohio River Valley; Atlanta; St. Louis; Chicago, and Detroit. The only other Western area was a small corner of northwestern Montana.
In May, governors gave EPA a list of 141 counties they viewed as failing to meet the soot requirements. EPA broadened that to include many other counties, not because their air is too dirty but because their pollution contributes to nearby areas that are out of compliance.
Counties were placed on the list or removed due to factors such as emission rates, recent air quality, population density, traffic and commuting patterns, expected growth, weather and geography, legal boundaries and the level of pollution controls.
The regulations have been a long time coming. The Clinton administration devised them in 1997, but they were held up because of court challenges by industry that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the standard. They are also meant to update and complement the 1987 standard for reducing soot particles 10 micrometers in diameter, or 1/7th the width of human hair. Those had mostly targeted dusty air from things such as mining tailings, factory debris, unpaved roads and windblown dust.
The states with counties in violation are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.