EDF Sues Trump Administration for Weak Soot Standard That Exposes Americans to Dangerous Air Pollution

January 19, 2021
Sharyn Stein, 202-905-5718, sstein@edf.org

(Washington, D.C. – January 19, 2021) The Trump administration is facing another lawsuit in its final hours.

A coalition of health and environmental groups, including EDF, filed suit today against the Trump EPA’s decision to leave in place inadequate protections against particle pollution – more commonly called soot.

“”Particle pollution is linked to asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart disease and premature death. The Trump Administration’s failure to set a protective national standard risks exposing all Americans to unhealthy levels of air pollution,” said EDF senior attorney Rachel Fullmer. “The Trump administration action is contrary to its clear legal obligation to protect public health and ignores the best scientific data.”

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA must review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter every five years. The Trump EPA was due to update our national standards, but instead chose to freeze them at their current level. That decision came after they rushed the review process, shortening public comment periods and canceling scheduled meetings with experts and stakeholders. It also followed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s disbanding of the 26-member particulate matter expert panel. A smaller, divided advisory panel made up mostly of Wheeler’s appointees then recommended leaving the soot standards at their current levels.

EPA has recognized that even if air quality around the country just met the current standard – 12 micrograms per cubic meter, set in 2012 – about 50,000 Americans would still suffer early deaths due to particulate pollution. A study published last fall even found that higher historical exposures to particulate matter pollution are associated with higher county-level COVID-19 mortality rates.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has a clear legal obligation to set a level for particulate pollution that protects public health with an adequate margin of safety. This margin of safety is intended to protect populations that are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. EPA’s failure to strengthen the particulate matter standards would result in serious environmental justice implications. A 2018 study by EPA scientists published in the American Journal of Public Health found that “Non-White populations overall experienced 1.28 times the burden of the general population, and Black populations, specifically, experienced the greatest degree of disparity in the siting of PM emitting facilities at national, state, and county levels, burdened with 1.54 times the PM emissions faced by the general population.” EPA review documents note that there is “strong evidence for racial and ethnic differences in PM2.5 exposures and in PM2.5-related health risk. Such analyses indicate that minority populations such as Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations have higher PM2.5 exposures than non-Hispanic white populations, thus contributing to adverse health risk in non-white populations (U.S. EPA, 2019, section 12.5.4).” However, in the final rulemaking, EPA wrote that “this action does not have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples…” (FR announcement)

The Trump administration finalized its decision to leave the weak soot standards in place last month. The American Lung Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Clean Air Task Force, Conservation Law Foundation, Earthjustice, Environment America, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists joined EDF in today’s lawsuit.

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Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. With offices in the United States, China, Mexico, United Kingdom and Indonesia, EDF's 750 scientists, economists, attorneys -- and our allies -- work in 26 countries to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on EDF Voices, Twitter and Facebook.