Philly air quality: New federal standard limits fine particles

In the U.S., people of color tend to be exposed to more particulate pollution than white people, regardless of income level.

In Philadelphia, Black and Hispanic children are hospitalized for asthma symptoms at much higher rates than White and Asian children. Childhood asthma hospitalizations are highest in lower Northeast, upper North, and West Philadelphia.

If states needed to comply immediately with the stricter standard announced this week, Camden County in New Jersey and Philadelphia, Delaware, Cambria, Dauphin, Lancaster, York, and Allegheny counties in Pennsylvania would fail, according to the EPA.

But the agency predicts the air will get cleaner by 2032 — the earliest states would likely need to prove compliance — thanks to pollution control strategies already in place, such as emissions standard for heavy-duty vehicles, a rule that aims to cut pollution from upwind power plants, and a recent regulation on methane leaks from oil and gas operations. By the compliance deadline, only Delaware and Allegheny counties in Pennsylvanian and Camden and Bergen counties in New Jersey should be in noncompliance, according to EPA projections.

Preliminary data shows that all counties in the state of Delaware would pass the new standard if implemented today, according to an EPA spokesperson.

States with counties that fail the standard must develop plans to reduce pollution. These could include actions such as tightening vehicle emissions inspections or requiring existing industrial facilities to install new pollution control devices to meet stricter state standards, said David Hess, who served as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection in the early 2000s.

“Everything, essentially, would be on the table,” Hess said.

States try to reduce pollution in the most cost-effective ways they can, Hess said. So, environmental regulators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey will need to start by analyzing where fine particle pollution comes from.

“You’re looking at anything that deals with the combustion of fossil fuels, …  everything from mining, quarries,” he said. “You’d have to look at all those sources, figure out where you’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reductions.”

Once the EPA determines an area fails the new standard, that area must plan to meet the standard within six years. As soon as the rule goes into effect, companies applying for permits to become new major sources of pollution or to expand existing facilities must incorporate the new standards into their air quality analyses.

It’s unlikely that states would revoke permits for existing polluters, Hess said — but facilities could choose to shut down if new pollution standards are too costly to comply with.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey should convene stakeholder groups facilitated by an independent third party to advise this planning process, including representatives from polluting industries, environmental groups, municipal officials, and people affected by pollution, Hess said. This ensures there’s buy-in when state-level rules are put in place, he said.

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