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EPA would tighten soot standards

| Friday, June 15, 2012, 9:42 p.m.

The Obama administration has proposed tougher standards on the amount of soot that can be released into the air, a move required by the courts but one that raised the ire of some businesses and Republicans in an election year.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed change on Friday; it would decrease the allowable fine particle pollution, or soot, to a range of between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air from 15 micrograms. The agency will seek comment and hold hearings before issuing the final standard by Dec. 14.

The rule would be life-saving in Western Pennsylvania, said Rachel Filippini, executive director at the Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution. She noted a report from the American Lung Association, Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice last fall that claimed 1,300 deaths in the region could be prevented annually with the new standard and several others the agency is reviewing.

"Pittsburgh is really ground zero for fine particulate matter," she said. "We have a lot to benefit from this."

It could require big changes in the region, including new controls on diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, even though that plant is already under a $500 million improvement project, Filippini said. Gov. Tom Corbett and other Republican governors have pushed for delays, saying the shifting rules cause problems for businesses and could cost jobs.

The proposed standard was praised by national health groups who contend the change will help to curb lung diseases, including asthma.

But business groups and Republicans have opposed the move, saying that the increased regulation could prove costly and not provide the hoped-for benefits. Republicans have made increased government regulations one of their issues in an election year in which economic issues will be key.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to consider revising the standards every five years. The last revision was in 2006 and the Obama administration hoped to delay the issue until the summer of 2013, well after November's elections, to allow more time for scientific study.

But 11 states, including New York and California, joined with groups -- including the American Lung Association -- to challenge the delay. Earlier this month, a federal court backed the states and ordered the new rules be proposed.

Soot, composed of microscopic particles from factories and vehicles, can penetrate deep into the lungs, the EPA said. It has been linked to increased risk of a range of deadly health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children.

In its announcement, the EPA noted that the estimated economic benefits from better health will range from $88 million a year to as much as $5.9 billion, with the estimated cost of pollution control ranging from $2.9 million to $69 million. Just six counties in the nation will not be able to meet the new standards by 2020 without additional anti-pollution efforts, the agency said. Counties that will have difficulties include Riverside and San Bernardino in California.

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