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Half of US states join GOP lawsuits challenging new EPA rule on deadly soot pollution

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new Biden administration rule that sets tougher standards for deadly soot pollution faced a barrage of legal challenges Wednesday, as 25 Republican-led states and a host of business groups filed lawsuits seeking to block the rule in court.

Twenty-four states, led by attorneys general from Kentucky and West Virginia, filed a joint challenge stating that new Environmental Protection Agency rule would raise costs for manufacturers, utilities and families and could block new manufacturing plants and infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Texas filed a separate suit, as did business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers.

“The EPA’s new rule has more to do with advancing President (Joe) Biden’s radical green agenda than protecting Kentuckians’ health or the environment, said Kentucky Attorney General Russell Coleman, who is leading the joint lawsuit along with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The EPA rule “will drive jobs and investment out of Kentucky and overseas, leaving employers and hardworking families to pay the price,” Coleman said.

The soot rule is one of several EPA dictates under attack from industry groups and Republican-led states. The Supreme Court heard arguments last month on a GOP challenge to the agency's “good neighbor rule,” which restricts smokestack emissions from power plants and other industrial sources that burden downwind areas.

Three energy-producing states — Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia — challenged the rule, along with the steel industry and other groups, calling it costly and ineffective. The rule is on hold in a dozen states because of the court challenges.

In opposing the soot rule, Republicans and industry groups say the United States already has some of the strictest air quality standards in the world — tougher than the European Union or major polluters such as China and India.

Tightening U.S. standards "wouldn't improve public health, but it would put as many as 30% of all U.S. counties out of compliance under federal law, leading to aggressive new permitting requirements that could effectively block new economic activity,'' Coleman said.

The EPA rule sets maximum levels of fine particle pollution — more commonly known as soot — at 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 12 micrograms established a decade ago under the Obama administration.

Environmental and public health groups hailed the rule as a major step to improve the health of Americans, including future generations. EPA scientists have estimated exposure at previous limits contributed to thousands of early deaths from heart disease and lung cancer, along with other health problems.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the new soot rule, finalized last month, would create $46 billion in net health benefits by 2032, including prevention of up to 800,000 asthma attacks and 4,500 premature deaths. The rule will especially benefit children, older adults and those with heart and lung conditions, Regan said, as well as people in low-income and minority communities adversely affected by decades of industrial pollution.

"We do not have to sacrifice people to have a prosperous and booming economy,″ Regan said.

Biden is seeking reelection, and some fellow Democrats have warned that a tough new soot standard could harm his chances in key industrial states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The EPA and White House officials brushed aside those concerns, saying the industry has developed technical improvements to meet previous soot standards and can adapt to meet the new ones. Soot pollution has declined by 42% since 2000, even as the U.S. gross domestic product has increased by 52%, Regan said.

The new rule does not impose pollution controls on specific industries. Instead, it lowers the annual standard for fine particulate matter for overall air quality. The EPA will use air sampling to identify counties and other areas that do not meet the new standard. States would then have 18 months to develop compliance plans for those areas. States that do not meet the new standard by 2032 could face penalties, although EPA said it expects that 99% of U.S. counties will be able to meet the revised annual standard by 2032.

Industry groups and Republican officials dispute that and say a lower soot limit could put hundreds of U.S. counties out of compliance.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned the White House in January that 43% of total particulate emissions come from wildfires, and called the pollution standard "the wrong tool to address this problem.''

The EPA said it will work with states, counties and tribes to account for and respond to wildfires, an increasing source of soot pollution, especially in the West, where climate change has led to longer wildfire seasons, with more frequent and intense fires. The agency allows states and air agencies to request exemptions from air-quality standards due to “exceptional events," including wildfires and prescribed fires.

Besides Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas, other states challenging the EPA rule include: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

All three cases were filed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.