EPA finalizes stricter soot pollution guidelines; Chicagoland expected to lag in meeting them

On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized significantly more stringent rules on permitted levels of fine particle pollution — known as PM2.5, or soot — in the atmosphere. Most U.S. counties already meet the stricter standard and more are on track to meet it by 2032, the agency said, but some, including Lake County, Indiana, and Cook County, Illinois, are expected to fall short.

Particulate pollution is produced primarily through the burning of coal, petroleum, wood and other carbon-based fuels. Inhaling the particles is associated with an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases like asthma and lung cancer.

For the first time in more than a decade, the EPA will tighten the annual health-based national ambient air quality standard, lowering permitted particulate levels from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to just nine.

Christopher Tessum, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois’ Grainger College of Engineering, said that the agency faces a dilemma in determining where to set the standard. The EPA was tasked by the 1970 Clean Air Act with determining acceptable levels of airborne pollutants, but scientists have not identified a safe level of fine particle pollution.

“In that context, if you have more that’s worse, if you have less that’s better, regardless of the current level,” he told the Post-Tribune.

The agency predicts that the change will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, with net health benefits as high as $46 billion in 2032. Each dollar spent on compliance with the new rule could yield as much as $77 in health benefits, the EPA said.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the press release. “Cleaner air means that our children have brighter futures, and people can live more productive and active lives, improving our ability to grow and develop as a nation.”

The rule change has been years in the making. In June 2021, the EPA announced it would reconsider its 2020 decision to retain particulate standards that were put in place in 2012. The agency weighed the recommendations of the independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee in drafting proposed standards that were submitted for public comment in 2023.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Midwest-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, lauded the EPA’s announcement in a statement. Though the ELPC urged the agency to adopt stricter particulate standards during last year’s public comment period, Learner wrote that the rules change marks “an important step in the right direction toward cleaner air for people in Chicago and across the Midwest.”

“From ELPC’s work with local groups to monitor soot pollution in communities across Chicago we know there are neighborhoods that are experiencing high levels of this soot pollution,” Learner wrote. “In some neighborhoods in Chicago, up to one in three kids struggle with higher rates of asthma and other lung ailments. This new stronger standard will help ensure more Chicagoans have cleaner air to breathe.”

According to EPA air monitoring data collected from 2020 to 2022, most counties with monitors already met the strengthened particle pollution standard announced on Wednesday. Lake County, Indiana was one of six counties in the state that did not. Just across the Illinois border, Cook, DuPage, Kane and Will Counties also saw particulate levels in excess of the new standard.

The EPA projects that just 52 counties — less than 1% of the total number in the nation — would fail to meet the annual standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter by 2032.

Hilary Lewis, steel director at the green industry advocacy nonprofit Industrious Labs, told the Post-Tribune that the steel industry has a significant role to play in helping Lake County and other industrial areas meet the new standard. Home to two coal-based steel mills and close to a third located in Burns Harbor in Porter County, Lake County has long had among the worst air quality in Indiana.

“Almost all of the remaining coal-burning steel mills in the United States are in counties that are going to be out of attainment,” Lewis said. “Steelmakers like Cleveland-Cliffs and U.S. Steel can be investing in modern clean steelmaking technology that will drastically reduce PM missions and help make healthier air for all these communities.”

She pointed to direct reduced ironmaking, a process that uses hydrogen, rather than conventional natural gas, to produce metallic iron from iron ore. Lewis and other environmental advocates believe that a move towards DRI, coupled with the “green” production of hydrogen from renewable energy sources, can substantially reduce the steel industry’s contributions to both airborne pollution and man-made climate change.