EPA proposes limitations on PM2.5 emissions

In response to a court order under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed updates to its national air quality standards for fine particle pollution, including soot (known as PM2.5). EPA says that 99 percent of U.S. counties are projected to meet the proposed standard without any additional action.

EPA has proposed to limit PM2.5 to a level within a range of 13 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The current annual standard is 15 micrograms per cubic meter. By proposing a range, EPA says it will collect input from the public as well as a number of stakeholders to help determine the most appropriate final standard.

EPA says the proposal has no effect on the existing daily standard for fine particles or the existing daily standard for coarse particles (PM10), both of which would remain unchanged. EPA expects affected counties to achieve attainment by 2020.

The proposed rule is an update to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards which is required under the Clean Air Act every five years, said Jane Montgomery, partner at Schiff Hardin. “There isn’t substantially new information,” she said, but due to pressure from groups like the American Lung Association, EPA saw it fit to require stricter limitations on smaller particles, which can pose more health threats than larger particles.

Fine particle emissions can be particularly challenging to control, as the pollutant can be formed both directly and indirectly, said Todd Palmer, an environmental lawyer with Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. “PM2.5 is a rather unique pollutant in the sense that it can be emitted directly from a source, but can also be formed miles away when pollutants like SO2 and NOx chemically interact in the atmosphere,” Palmer said.

EPA says that depending on the final level of the standard, estimated benefits will range from $88 million a year, with estimated costs of implementation as low as $2.9 million, to $5.9 billion in annual benefits with a cost of $69 million.

“It is not a significant cost rule because of all of the reductions that have already been achieved,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The proposed soot rule with not likely have a large effect on coal-fired power plants since those facilities are already facing stringent compliance under other regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) and Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), Montgomery said. However, the proposed rule could have a more significant impact on facilities that house gas turbines. “Gas turbines have less control on particulate emissions, and their NOx emissions are frequently low enough that there aren’t a lot of pollution controls on gas turbines.”

In the proposed rule, EPA says it plans to retain the existing 24-hour fine particle standard, at 35 µg/m3 set in 2006. EPA said it also plans to set a new, separate fine particle standard to improve visibility, primarily in urban areas. EPA is proposing two options for this 24-hour standard, at 30 deciviews or 28 deciviews. (A deciview is a yardstick for measuring visibility.)

Particulate Matter is already being limited through two existing regulations: indirectly via the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule. Because of these pre-existing standards, most areas are already in compliance, McCarthy said. “That’s why 99 percent of U.S. counties are already on a path to meet these standards.”

EPA will accept public comment for 63 days after the proposed standards are published in the Federal Register. The agency will hold two public hearings; one in Sacramento, Calif. and one in Philadelphia, Pa. Details on the hearings will be announced soon, according to EPA. EPA plans to issue the final standards by Dec.14, 2012.

For more information on the proposed rule, click here.

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