EPA Tightens Fine Particulate Matter NAAQS

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule late last year that strengthens its National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to 12.0 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) but declared it would not finalize a proposal to update separate secondary PM2.5 standards. The final rule’s issuance was lauded by environmental and public health groups, though industry groups opposed it, citing concerns that nonattainment areas would suffer economic setbacks.

The new rule finalized on Dec. 14  was issued to meet a court-mandated deadline. It pares down the primary standard for PM2.5 to 12.0 μg/m3 from the existing 1997-set annual standard of 15.0 μg/m3, but retains the 2006-issued 24-hour primary fine particle standard of 35 μg/m3.

On Dec. 14, the agency also retained existing secondary PM2.5 standards—both an annual standard of 15.0 μg/m3 and a 24-hour standard of 35 μg/m3—to address visibility impairment and climate change impacts, and it said it would not finalize the separate standard to protect visibility as previously proposed in June 2012. "After considering public comment on the proposal and further analyzing recent air quality monitoring data, the agency has concluded that the current secondary 24-hour PM2.5 standard of 35μg/m3 will provide visibility protection that is equal to, or greater than, 30 deciviews [a measurement of visibility], the target level of protection the agency is setting today," it said. Meanwhile, it also retained existing standards for coarse particle pollution (PM10).

EPA: Revised Standard to be Met by Other Air Rules

Fine particles are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller and can be emitted directly from smokestacks, vehicles, and fires, and form when gases emitted by power plants and gasoline/diesel engines react in the atmosphere, the EPA said. About 66 counties in eight states currently do not meet the new standard, but the EPA estimates that when fully in force by 2020, only seven counties (all of them in California) will still be out of compliance. Existing clean diesel rules and rules to reduce pollution from power plants would help 99% of counties with monitors to meet the revised PM2.5 standards "without additional emission reductions," it added.

Though estimated yearly costs to implement the annual primary fine particle standard of 12.0 μg/m3 would range between $53 million and $350 million, the rule would provide health benefits worth an estimated $4 billion to $9.1 billion per year in 2020, the EPA said, citing an "extensive body of scientific evidence" when it said that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution can cause "premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system."

Under the new rule, the EPA will grandfather pending preconstruction permitting applications if they are either deemed complete by Dec. 14, 2012, or if the public notice for a draft permit of preliminary determination has been published before the date the revised PM standards become effective (60 days after publication in the Federal Register). States would have until 2020 to meet the revised annual PM2.5 primary standard, but they could request an extension until 2025 if necessary.

Industry Groups: Revised PM2.5 Standard Scientifically Unsound

While the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmental and public health groups hailed the agency’s decision, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council (ERCC), the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and other industry groups opposed it.

ERCC Director Scott Segal in a Dec. 12 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote that the group whose members comprise power generators was concerned the "broad-ranging" PM NAAQS was based on incomplete science. "Unfortunately, the current PM NAAQS package is premised on benefits claims that do not have sufficient scientific support," Segal wrote. "Additionally, EPA has cited the harms associated with PM in a wide range of proposed rulemakings, such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (MATS), which magnifies the problems with uncertainty because of the likelihood that EPA is double-counting health benefits from PM reductions in multiple rulemakings."

The concerns echo those expressed by the EEI in response to the EPA’s June 2012 proposal of the rule. That coalition of shareholder-owned electric companies this August commented that whether or not the EPA issued its final PM2.5 NAAQS rule as proposed, air quality in the nation would "dramatically improve, due to power-sector specific regulations like the MATS, CAIR, and other NAAQS for ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide." But lowering the PM2.5 standard would "have an impact across the country in the near term because states and EPA would have to designate many counties as failing the new standards by around January 2015 (based on air quality in 2011-2013, which would not be expected to be dramatically different than that of today)."

An Increased Regulatory Burden

Then there are concerns about an increased regulatory burden. "Under EPA’s currently planned schedule for NAAQS reviews, a new ozone standard could be promulgated in 2014 that would layer on top of existing standards,” the EEI said. "In addition, during this time period, the newly revised NO2 and SO2 NAAQS will be implemented, requiring additional designations and [state implementation plan] submittals. … EPA would also promulgate additional transport rules beyond programs currently in place for the purposes of assisting in attaining the NAAQS concurrent with revised PM and ozone NAAQS."

The industry group said the current situation causes an immense waste of resources and fosters years of uncertainty for states, local governments, and industry that are affected by revised NAAQS. “Undoubtedly, this situation will be complicated due to litigation concerning the standards and delays in regulatory implementation both at the state and federal level. This situation stands in contrast to policies that have been advocated by the current Administration.”

The EEI has estimated that U.S. electric utilities are expected to triple capital expenditures by 2030 by nearly $2 trillion—half of which will go to building new plants or retrofitting or repowering existing plants.

For an in-depth look at past and present PM2.5 rulemaking, see, "Hazy Timetable for EPA’s Proposed Tighter PM2.5 Standards" in the November 2012 issue of POWER.

This story first appeared in POWERnews, Dec. 20, 2012.

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)