Many Counties Failing Fine-Particle Air Rules
December 18, 2004
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 - About a third of all Americans live
in counties that do not meet seven-year-old standards for
microscopic particles of pollution that cause thousands of
premature deaths a year, the Environmental Protection
Agency said Friday.
The 20 states affected, including New York, New Jersey and
Connecticut, now have three years to develop plans to bring
their problem counties into compliance by 2010, or face the
loss of federal highway money.
This is the first time since the environmental agency set
tough new health-based standards in 1997 that it has
declared which counties around the country are out of
compliance for the fine particles produced by a variety of
sources, including car exhausts, wood-burning stoves and
These sooty chemical particles are known as PM2.5,
shorthand for particulate matter measuring no more than 2.5
microns, a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, so
small they can lodge deep in the lungs if inhaled.
The Clinton administration set the rules under the Clean
Air Act, which requires that air quality standards be
sufficient to protect the health of even the most
vulnerable people, like asthmatics and the frail elderly.
Industry groups objected at the time, arguing that
compliance would be far too costly. Legal challenges went
all the way to the Supreme Court, where the rules were
Today, the finding that most of the country meets the
standards was termed "an American success story" by the
departing E.P.A. administrator, Michael O. Leavitt,
President Bush's choice to be the next secretary of health
and human services.
"This is not a story about air getting dirtier," Mr.
Leavitt said, concluding what is likely to be his last
major effort after 13 months at the agency. "This is a
story about higher and more stringent standards and
Monitoring by the agency began several years ago and found
that of the nation's 3,141 counties, 2,909 - home to 192
million people - were meeting the PM2.5 standards.
But the data also showed that the standards were exceeded
in 225 counties and the District of Columbia, with a total
of 95 million people. (Seven other counties did not produce
enough reliable data to be counted.)
Following up on the Clinton rules, the Bush administration
has proposed two measures aimed at reducing emissions of
particulate matter and other regulated air pollutants.
One is the Clean Air Interstate Rule, a regulation that
would lower emissions from coal-fired power plants, helping
to control pollution in 29 Eastern states and the District
of Columbia, a region to which many emissions drift from
The other is the Clear Skies Initiative, a bill languishing
in Congress that many environmental groups say would
undercut the Clean Air Act.
Mr. Leavitt had promised to sign the Interstate Rule by the
end of the year, but the White House last week pushed final
adoption back to March.
Most environmental groups view the Interstate Rule as a
useful tool that would at least help one state to force
another to restrain emissions that are carried by the winds
across state lines. Still, they view the E.P.A.'s efforts
"It's one thing to identify areas with dirty air," said
Frank O'Donnell, president of a new environmental watchdog,
Clean Air Watch. "It's more important to clean up the
pollution causing the dirty air. That's where they are
dropping the ball."
Mr. Leavitt said the agency had taken a number of steps to
reduce air pollution, including regulations issued in April
to control ozone, which causes smog and damages the lungs.
Today's declaration sets in motion complex requirements
for the 20 states that have areas in noncompliance with the
fine-particle standards. By law, the states must now
develop programs, which require federal approval, that will
address the sources of the PM2.5 pollution so that
compliance is achieved by 2010.
While coal-fired power plants account for much of the
problem in the East, vehicle exhaust is the major offender
in parts of California. That means an Eastern state's
solution might include new technologies for power plant
smokestacks, while California could propose anything from
electrical outlets at truck stops, so that drivers would
have incentive to turn off their engines overnight, to new
initiatives for mass transit, said Steve Johnson, deputy
E.P.A. administrator. Most states, though, would probably
seek to control emissions from all types of sources.
Mr. Johnson said the E.P.A. had not calculated how much it
might cost states to comply. But Jeff Clark, an official
with the agency's Office of Air Quality Planning and
Standards, said, "Whatever the costs are, the benefits are
By the agency's estimates, even partial compliance by 2010
would prevent 15,000 premature deaths a year, 75,000 cases
of chronic bronchitis, 20,000 cases of acute bronchitis,
10,000 hospital admissions for respiratory and
cardiovascular diseases, and loss of 3.1 million days