WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new standard for soot pollution Friday, forcing industry, utilities and local governments to find ways to reduce emissions of particles linked to thousands of cases of disease and death each year, government officials said.
The agency, acting under a court deadline, is proposing an annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a significant tightening from the previous standard of 15 micrograms, set in 1997, which a federal court found too weak to adequately protect public health. The new standard is in the middle of the range of 11-13 micrograms that the EPA's science advisory panel recommended.
Communities must meet the new standard by 2020 or face possible federal fines.
The EPA based its action on studies that found exposure to fine particles -- in this case, measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter -- brought a marked increase in heart and lung disease, acute asthma attacks and early death. Older people, adults with heart and lung conditions, and children are particularly susceptible to the effects of breathing in soot particles.
The agency estimates the net benefit of the new rule at $2.3 billion to $5.9 billion a year, and the annual costs of putting it into effect at $53 million to $350 million.
Today, 66 counties in eight states do not meet the new standard, including the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The EPA estimates that by 2020, when the rule is fully in force, only seven counties, all of them in California, will still be out of compliance. Other rules already in effect governing mercury, sulfur and other pollution from vehicles, factories and power plants will bring about that reduction.
"These fine particles penetrate deep into the lungs, causing serious and costly health effects," EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. "As the mother of two sons who have battled asthma, the benefits are not just numbers or abstract concepts."
Utility industry officials on Thursday pleaded with the EPA to delay the release of the new rule, arguing that the standard is based on incomplete science and would impose costly new burdens on states and cities. Utilities -- joined by trade associations representing manufacturers, chemical companies and the oil and gas industry -- said the new rule would push many communities into noncompliance, making it more difficult to obtain permits for new businesses that create jobs.