Health groups, environmentalists, and state governments won a major victory for clean air last month when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed tighter regulations on one of the most dangerous air pollutants we breathe every day: soot. This victory will not only have a measurable impact in reducing haze and protecting wildlife and plants in national parks; it will also prevent heart attacks, acute bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature deaths, according to a recent report.
Soot (also known as fine particulate matter) is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels and other materials. Diesel engines, industrial boilers, waste incinerators, forest fires, and even cigarettes create soot, though coal-fired power plants are a major contributor to outdoor soot pollution.
EPA had not updated its regulations on soot in more than a decade. Eleven states sued the agency to revise the outdated regulations based on the best science and medical evidence, and Earthjustice filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of NPCA and the American Lung Association earlier this year to force the agency to complete the work needed to set stronger pollution limits. A court order now requires EPA to adopt new soot standards by the end of 2012—a timeframe that feels almost like light speed after years of delays.
The EPA plays a critical role regulating air pollution throughout the country. The agency sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards (sometimes called NAAQs) that identify how much pollution is too much for our lungs and for public welfare, including the protection of air, land, and water in our national parks. These standards are the foundation of the Clean Air Act and some of the strongest protections we have in the United States against everything from asthma to acid rain to climate change.
The agency doesn’t determine how governments meet these regulations, and states have a great deal of flexibility in how they lower their soot pollution. Still, many industry officials claim the new regulations will harm the economy (one news outlet called the issue a “political hot potato”). The truth is, EPA has decades of analyses showing that taking smart measures—such as retrofitting outdated coal plants with modern pollution controls—creates benefits that greatly outweigh the costs. In fact, many plants are actually using these technologies and operating profitably.
This new ruling is not just critical for national park lovers and good for the economy—it could literally help thousands of Americans breathe easier.
Like this story? Read our recent Q&A on why 2012 could be a landmark year for cleaning up haze.
About the author
Mark Wenzler Senior Vice President of Conservation Programs
Mark oversees NPCA’s programs focused on protecting and restoring the air, lands, water, and wildlife in our national parks. He is an avid outdoor recreationist who loves to ski, bike, backpack and paddle, especially in our national parks.