The Trump administration had a slam dunk way to improve air quality and save lives. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency flat-out rejected the opportunity to tighten regulations on soot from fossil fuel power plants, tailpipes, incinerators, and industrial other sources on Monday.
The EPA is required to review its National Ambient Air Quality Standards regulations every five years. The rule currently caps companies’ emissions of fine particulate pollution, also known as PM2.5 or soot, at 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air each year. In a draft report last year, the agency’s own staff scientists said that lowering that standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter could save roughly 12,200 lives a year that are lost to the health impacts of pollution. But on Monday, EPA administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency won’t be touching the rule, because apparently it’s fine as it is even though it’s deadly.
“Make no mistake, Trump’s EPA just condemned tens of thousands of people to die painful, premature deaths each year from a pollutant that can be removed from our air,” Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney and air-pollution expert at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Their callous disregard for the lives of people and imperiled wildlife, just to save the nation’s biggest fossil fuel polluters a few bucks, is sickening.”
This is bad news for people across the country, but the effects won’t be felt evenly. Soot, which is harmful because its tiny particles can enter the bloodstream when humans breathe it in, is a far bigger problem in poor communities and communities of color. That’s because due to a long history of disinvestment and segregation, corporations and governments tend to site polluting infrastructure—including highways, toxic waste dumps, pipelines and coal, oil, and gas plants—near them. A 2019 study found that in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, people of color inhale 66% more pollution from automobiles than white residents. And research also shows that Black people suffer the higher death rates from heart disease and triple the asthma rates of white people, both of which are linked to particulate matter exposure.
The announcement is particularly galling because the world is still in the midst of the spread of a deadly respiratory illness. There’s growing amounts of evidence showing that exposure to air pollution makes people far more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
The Trump administration is on its way out. It could have marginally cleaned up its toxic legacy by improving soot standards. But instead it chose not to in order to make life a little easier for craven polluters, even though some of them are in failing industries anyway.
Thankfully, the incoming Biden administration can undo this. There’s nothing that says officials must wait five years to update the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. They should do so as soon as they get into office.