11 States Sue EPA Over Delay in New Soot Rules

On February 10, several states filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in New York to require the EPA to issue more stringent air quality requirements for soot emissions. The states filed their suit in response to the agency missing an October 2011 deadline to update its standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) or soot, which is produced by diesel vehicle emissions and power plants. Many health problems are linked to particulate matter emissions such as respiratory illness, heart disease, and asthma. 

Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) program, the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to review emissions thresholds for "criteria" pollutants considered harmful to human health. One such criteria pollutant is fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which is comprised of very tiny particles measured at 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter or roughly 1/30 the size of a human hair. In September 2006, the EPA tightened soot regulations with a daily standard that reduced emissions from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period; a reduction of about 53 percent. Many environmental and public health groups believed that soot standards should have been promulgated at much lower levels, but the Bush Administration did not believe enough compelling evidence warranted such a reduction. In 2008, at least 25 states had localities that could not meet the 2006 soot standards set by EPA. When municipalities cannot comply with Clean Air Act standards, they are put in what non-attainment which can limit development until emissions met required levels.  

A group of states with high levels of soot raised concerns that the rule was not strict enough to protect public health and filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit. In 2009, the Court agreed with the coalition of states, and returned the standards back to the EPA for reconsideration to produce tougher standards to improve and protect public health. EPA responded that it would produce new fine particulate matter standards as part of its five-year air quality review under the NAAQS process - with a statutory deadline of October 17, 2011. Since that time, EPA has not finalized or proposed any new standards and thus a coalition of states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) filed suit last week to compel EPA to issue new rules. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stated "Every day, air pollution, from soot risks the health of more than one-third of Americans, including our most vulnerable — children, the elderly and the sick.These risks are simply unacceptable." The Obama Administration noted that they are continuing to work issuing new soot regulations, but there is speculation that the delay is likely caused by Congressional scrutiny over the EPA's regulatory reach and economic impact to utilities, manufacturers, and others.