Trump Administration Declines to Tighten Soot Rules, Despite Link to Covid Deaths
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday declined to tighten controls on industrial soot emissions, disregarding an emerging scientific link between dirty air and Covid-19 death rates.
In one of the final policy moves of an administration that has spent the past four years weakening or rolling back more than 100 environmental regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a regulation that keeps in place, rather than tightening, rules on tiny, lung-damaging industrial particles, known as PM 2.5, even though the agency’s own scientists have warned of the links between the pollutants and respiratory illness.
E.P.A. administrator Andrew Wheeler is expected to announce the rule Monday afternoon, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Public health experts say that the rule defies scientific research, including the work of the E.P.A.’s own public health experts, which indicates that PM 2.5 pollution contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, and that even a slight tightening of controls on fine soot could save thousands of American lives.
In April, researchers at Harvard released the first nationwide study linking long-term exposure to PM 2.5 and Covid-19 death rates. The study found that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution.
The new rule retains a standard enacted in 2012. That rule limited the pollution of industrial fine soot particles — each about 1/30th the width of a human hair, but associated with heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths — to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. By law, the E.P.A. is required every five years to review the latest science and update that standard.
When E.P.A. scientists conducted that mandatory review, many concluded that if the federal government tightened that standard to about nine micrograms per cubic meter, more than 10,000 American lives could be saved a year.
In a draft 457-page scientific assessment of the risks associated with keeping or strengthening the fine soot pollution rule, career scientists at the E.P.A. estimated that the current standard is “associated with 45,000 deaths” annually. The scientists wrote that if the rule were tightened to nine micrograms per cubic meter, annual deaths would fall by about 27 percent, which amounts to 12,150 people a year.
After the publication of that report, numerous industries, including oil and coal companies, automakers and chemical manufacturers, urged the Trump administration to disregard the findings and not tighten the rule.
In a November 2019 public comment submitted by 13 industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry representatives wrote, “significant uncertainty remains about the relationship between exposure to PM 2.5 and adverse effects on public health.”
The E.P.A.’s leaders agreed with the industries’ assessment. In December last year, a seven-member E.P.A. advisory panel, composed mostly of members appointed by Trump administration, told Mr. Wheeler the career scientists’ findings were not conclusive enough to support tightening the rule. A final version of the scientists’ report, published in January to preview the still-unpublished rule, does say the rule as it stands contributes to 45,000 deaths annually, but it also says only that tightening it would reduce “health risks,” not deaths.