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 power plants.

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 upheld.

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 healthier air."


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 Midwestern plants.

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 as insufficient.

"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 far bigger."

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 worked.