In a step that officials said would save lives, the Obama administration on Friday announced new air quality standards intended to reduce the amount of soot that can be released into the air.
Environmental groups and public health advocates welcomed the move by the Environmental Protection Agency, saying it would protect millions of Americans at risk for soot-related asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart disease and premature death.
But congressional Republicans and industry officials called the proposal overly strict and said it could hurt economic growth and cause job losses in areas where pollution levels are determined to be too high.
Perhaps wary of the rule's political risk, the administration had sought to delay the new soot standards until after the November elections. But a federal judge ordered officials to act sooner after 11 states filed a lawsuit seeking a decision this year.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA's top air official, said the new rule was based on a rigorous scientific review. All but six counties in the United States would meet the proposed standard by 2020 with no additional actions needed beyond compliance with existing and pending rules set by the EPA, she said.
Those counties are San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California; Santa Cruz County, Arizona; Wayne County, Mich.; Jefferson County, Ala. and Lincoln County, Mont. All six face "unique challenges" and will receive individual attention from the EPA, McCarthy said Friday in a conference call with reporters.
"We will work very hard to make sure by 2020 they can enjoy the same kind of clean air that the other 99 percent of U.S. counties will achieve, based on the federal rules" already in place or scheduled to take effect over the next few years, she said.
But industry groups said the administration's assertion that so few counties would be affected by the new rule is based on the assumption that a dozen or more federal rules and standards _ including several that are being challenged in court and in Congress _ achieve their pollution reduction goals. The rules include controversial regulations governing mercury emissions and cross-state air pollution emitted by power plants, both of which face opposition from industry groups and members of Congress.
"The EPA wants to wave its hands and say, `Don't worry about it, it will all be taken care of by 2020,' `' said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry. "I'm worried about disinvestment by 2017" in counties that fail to meet new federal standards.
The rule could be felt especially hard in political swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where a natural gas drilling boom has boosted the local economies, Feldman said.
The new rule would set the maximum allowable standard for soot in a range of 12 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The current annual standard is 15 micrograms per cubic meter.
The EPA said it would start designating counties that fail to meet the new soot standards as soon as 2014.
Soot, made up of microscopic particles released from smokestacks, diesel trucks and buses, wood-burning stoves and other sources, contributes to haze and can burrow into lungs. Breathing in soot can cause lung and heart problems.
Dr. Albert Rizzo, chairman of the board of the American Lung Association, said soot, also known as fine-particle pollution, is a known killer. "The science is clear, and overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution at levels currently labeled as officially `safe' causes heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks," he said.
Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said they were disappointed that EPA did not include the current annual standard as a proposed option for the soot rule.
"Given the weak state of our economy, it is imperative the administration allow for a full and thorough review of all alternatives, including retention of the current standards," they said in a statement. Upton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while Whitfield heads a subcommittee on energy and power.
Eleven states, including New York and California, filed suit earlier this year to force a decision. The states and the American Lung Association say current standards jeopardize public health. Soot has been linked to thousands of premature deaths each year, as well as aggravation of respiratory illnesses, heart attacks and strokes.
More than a dozen states, along with environmental groups, sued the EPA several years ago, contending that the Bush administration had ignored science and its own experts when it decided in 2006 not to lower the nearly decade-old annual standard for soot. The agency's own analysis found a lower standard recommended by scientific advisers would have prevented almost 2,000 premature deaths each year.
The EPA initially promised to issue a decision in 2011. After months of inaction, states led by New York filed suit to force action. A federal court eventually ordered the EPA to propose a new rule by Thursday. A final rule is due in December after a public comment period.
Administration officials said the proposed changes are consistent with advice from independent scientists and are based on extensive research showing negative health impacts from soot at lower levels than previously understood. The agency will solicit comments from the public, as well as industry, public health groups and other interested groups to help determine the final standard.
Besides California and New York, states joining in the lawsuit forcing an EPA decision were Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC