West Virginia political leaders hailed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Monday announcement that it has finalized leaving in place existing air pollution standards for particulate matter, commonly known as soot.
The EPA declined to tighten those standards even after its own findings estimated that more stringent standards could save thousands of lives every year.
The existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter were last revised under the Obama administration in 2013, when the EPA lowered the primary annual standard from 15 to 12 milligrams per cubic meter to help protect against health effects linked to short and long-term exposures like premature death, increased hospitalizations and chronic respiratory disease development.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said maintaining the standards would ensure Americans can “continue to breathe some of the cleanest air on the planet,” and West Virginia leaders welcomed the move in a virtual media conference for what they said was a remedy for both environmental and economic concerns.
“This is an important announcement for West Virginia. We need to continue to support policies that keep our air clean, while protecting the job producers in our state. This regulation accomplishes those goals,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said.
U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., called the rule’s finalization “a big win for West Virginia” that “balances the need for a cleaner environment with the need for continued economic development.”
In a separate statement, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said finalizing and maintaining the particulate matter standard is a “critical step in cementing EPA’s progress under President Trump and providing the certainty our communities and businesses need for economic development.”
But the EPA’s rule finalization comes despite evidence in a January policy assessment prepared by the staff in the agency’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards which noted that “a conclusion that the current primary PM2.5 [fine particulate matter] standards do provide adequate public health protection would place little weight on the broad body of epidemiologic evidence reporting generally positive and statistically significant health effect associations.”
The policy assessment concluded the evidence it laid out “can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the current primary PM2.5 standards” and focused on alternative levels of the annual fine particulate matter standard.
Fine particulate matter consists of particles with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.
The policy assessment estimated that more stringent annual standards could save thousands of lives annually.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, disbanded a review panel that was poised to help review the particulate matter standards in 2018, a move that drew the ire of environmentalists. Former members of that panel wrote to Wheeler in 2019 that the current primary PM2.5 standards “do not protect public health.”
“The whole purpose of reviewing the science on these pollutants is to ensure that the standards keep up with their known health effects, not so that science can be ignored,” Karan Ireland, West Virginia Sierra Club senior campaign representative, said in an emailed statement.
A study published in Science Advances magazine last month found that higher historical fine-particulate matter exposures are associated with higher county-level COVID-19 death rates.
“The decision to maintain the status quo, instead of being more protective of public health, will hurt West Virginians, particularly those who are the most vulnerable to other adverse health outcomes,” Ireland said.
In October, Gov. Jim Justice announced the entire state of West Virginia was meeting all of the EPA’s NAAQS for the first time since the EPA made its initial non-attainment designations in 1978 under the Clean Air Act of 1970.
West Virginia has had fewer areas not attaining NAAQS than any other state in EPA Region 3 in recent years, according to EPA data. In addition to West Virginia, EPA Region 3 consists of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
“In West Virginia, our air is the cleanest it’s been in over 40 years,” Justice said during Monday’s media conference.
But Ireland and other environmentalists want West Virginia’s air held to a higher standard.
“It’s well past time for leaders to put the health and well-being of the people first, in Washington and in West Virginia,” Ireland said.