When Congress approved and then renewed the Clean Air Act, it placed the priority on public health. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has the job of ensuring the law fulfills its purpose. Thus, armed with scientific studies and court rulings, the agency announced last week a new standard for soot pollution, ordering reductions in emissions from smokestacks, diesel engines and other sources of tiny particles.
These particles generate haze, and they pose a health hazard. The elderly and children are most vulnerable. The soot penetrates deeply into respiratory systems, triggering lung and heart conditions, often aggravating asthma. Studies link soot to roughly 15,000 premature deaths a year.
After examining the impact of soot particles, the agency’s scientific advisory panel recommended a standard ranging from 11 micrograms to 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air. A federal court has agreed the current standard of 15 micrograms, dating to 1997, isn’t sufficient under the law. The agency landed on 12 micrograms, or a proposed reduction in particulate emissions of 20 percent.
No question, implementation carries a price, as coal-fired power plants, trucks and others move to comply. Today, 66 counties in eight states, including the Akron and Cleveland area, do not meet the new standard. The EPA estimates compliance will cost between $53 million and $350 million overall. Business and utility organizations have warned about harm to the sluggish economy.
That argument frays in view of the projected benefits, the agency putting the number at $2.3 billion to $5.9 billion a year. The savings comes in such things as fewer visits to the doctor and the hospital, not to mention fewer days of work lost due to illness. Hard to miss the value.
More, the agency has set a reasonable deadline of 2020 for meeting the new standard. If the past is any indication, a fudge factor will come into play, allowing for additional flexibility. The important thing is, the agency has acted, establishing a standard with the law in mind, giving priority to public health. Soon enough, the air will be a significant measure cleaner, and the safe bet is, few will complain or want to reverse the result.