The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it is proposing to strengthen its particulate matter standard, which has the potential to improve health conditions for residents in frontline communities — but experts wonder what the ultimate impact will be, and whether the agency could have introduced a stronger standard.

The EPA is proposing to bolster its primary PM2.5, or “soot,” annual standard, currently set at 12 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), to one that would be within a range of 9 to 10 µg/m3, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Friday. The agency would also accept comments in support of 8 through 11 µg/m3 during its public comment period, he said. 

“Our work to deliver clean, breathable air for everyone is a top priority at EPA, and this proposal will help ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from exposure to harmful pollution,” Regan said in a press release. 

The proposal is welcome in Louisiana, and specifically in the industrial corridor dubbed “Cancer Alley” by some, Naomi Yoder, staff scientist at the nonprofit group Healthy Gulf told The Lens in a statement on Friday. 

“Healthy Gulf applauds Administrator Regan for making this important first step in revising PM2.5 standards. This will literally save lives. And I want to reinforce that this is just a first step – don’t we need to save as many lives as possible?” Yoder said, adding that the EPA should also strengthen its 24-hour standard for soot. 

Soot level “spikes” from refineries or plastic chemical complexes “can make people very sick, but are not necessarily captured in the annual averages,” Yoder said. “I urge Administrator Regan to take into account the millions of people that are sickened by particulate matter on a regular basis, and enact the measures that protect public health instead of protecting the fossil fuel industry’s profit margin.”

The fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 or soot, is an air pollutant that impacts the health of people and communities all over the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.2 million people worldwide died prematurely in 2019 as a result of outdoor air pollution. In 2021, WHO revised its soot guidelines to 5 µg/m3. The last time the EPA updated its soot standards was in 2012 when it reduced its primary, annual standard from 15 to 12 µg/m3.

The pollution’s impact can be felt in the United States; and in Louisiana, that’s especially true in the state’s industrial corridor – the 85-mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s home to more than 150 petrochemical facilities. 

For instance, a study funded by the EPA and published in the academic journal Science Advances in 2021 stated that PM2.5 causes between 85,00 to 200,000 excess deaths each year in the United States, and that communities of color suffer at disproportionate rates. 

And a study produced in 2020, in part, by Kim Terrell, research scientist and director of community engagement at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), found that soot pollution levels had increased for several years in tandem with industrial expansion. The study also found that majority-Black communities bore the brunt of soot pollution – and there was a correlative relationship between exposure to that pollutant and to COVID-19 death rates. 

The EPA’s new proposal has the potential to improve the health outcomes for those living in the state’s industrial corridor, Terrell told The Lens in a statement, but the ultimate effect will be determined largely by its implementation. 

“From my perspective, a more protective PM2.5 standard could be a huge benefit to industrialized communities across Louisiana, but only if it comes with reliable air monitoring and enforcement,” she said. “For too long, industrialized communities like Mossville, St. James, and St. John have been overburdened with PM2.5 emissions while LDEQ [the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] has been busy measuring PM2.5 levels in parks and unpolluted neighborhoods.”

LDEQ operates almost 40 ambient air monitoring sites throughout the state, according to the agency’s website. When asked whether the EPA’s proposed rule change might have some impact on LDEQ’s operations, Gregory Langley, a spokesman for the state agency, told The Lens by email on Friday that the “EPA hasn’t proposed a specific regulatory number yet, so it would be really hard to say what impact, if any, the change would bring to LDEQ operations.”

He added that LDEQ will review the proposal and offer comments. The comment period closes 60 days after the notice has been published in the federal register. 

A “missed opportunity”

For Terry McGuire, a senior legislative representative on the Healthy Communities team for the legal nonprofit Earthjustice, the EPA’s announcement represents a squandered chance to combat the detrimental effects of soot pollution in a more meaningful way.

“We’re really disappointed and feel like it’s a big missed opportunity for the administration to walk the talk,“ McGuire told The Lens. 

The EPA’s proposal states that the agency is recommending a range of 9 to 10 µg/m3 for its primary annual standard, but will accept comments in support of 8 through 11 µg/m3 during its public comment period. The difference between one endpoint on the range to another, however, is highly significant, McGuire said. 

“We know that the difference between as you go from a tightening to 10, to nine to eight — there’s just huge increases in the number of lives saved and health harms avoided as it gets stronger,” he said, citing a study produced by the Environmental Defense Fund.

That study found that at a soot standard of 10 µg/m3, there would be as many as 4,800 lives saved. At a standard of 8 μg/m3, that figure jumped to 19,600, which is a difference of 14,800 lives. 

The EPA’s own regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for Friday’s proposed rule change cited a study which found that those figures, respectively, would be 1,700 and 9,200 – a difference of 7,500 lives. 

“My key takeaway is that the study we’re citing will save 4x the lives of a 10 ug/m3 standard (19,600 vs 4,800) and EPA’s own analysis shows an even bigger gulf – over 5x the lives saved at 8 vs 10 (9,200 vs 1,700),” McGuire said via text. 

McGuire also noted that, according to the RIA, three parishes in Louisiana – East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge and Caddo – would need to effect serious emissions reductions in order to comply with a soot pollution standard of eight μg/m3. In contrast, at the standard of 10 μg/m3, there wouldn’t be any parishes in Louisiana that would need to reduce emissions in order to comply. 

When asked during a press call on Thursday why the EPA wasn’t more aggressive in proposing a new standard, perhaps one that’s more in line with WHO’s, Regan said that the agency relied on “sound science” and a “rigorous evaluation of the data that we have at hand” in reaching its determination. 

“In consulting with our experts internally, as well as our stakeholders, numerous stakeholders, we came to the conclusion after our analysis, that the proposed range of 9 to 10 [µg/m3] is where we would go with this proposal,” Regan said.

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...