EPA’s Make Work Project

Unleashing a new layer of Clean Air bureaucracy

According to EPA administrator Mike Leavitt, reducing fine particulate matter is “the single most important action we can take to make our air healthier.” Leavitt’s proclamation accompanied EPA’s determination that 243 counties, home to 100 million people, are likely to be designated in November as Clean Air Act “non-attainment” areas for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Environmentalists have used EPA’s announcement as an opportunity to create the impression that PM2.5 levels are high and that nothing is being done to clean them up. For example, in a Reuters story on the EPA announcement, Vicki Patton of Environmental Defense declared “EPA needs to take swift action to cut the dangerous pollution from power plant smokestacks or millions of Americans will be left gasping for clean air.”

Reduce power plant emissions? Done. EPA reduced oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) from coal-fired power plants by about 30% between 1990 and 2000. The effects of these actions can be seen in the air. Ambient SO2, NOx, and sulfate PM all declined about 30 percent between 1989 and 2002. The Clean Air Act requires an additional 20% reduction in SO2 between 2000 and 2010, while EPA just implemented an additional 60% NOx reduction from coal-fired power plants during the May-September ozone season.

EPA’s recently proposed Interstate Air Quality Rule would reduce power plant NOx and SO2 emissions by an additional 65% and 70%, respectively, below current requirements. Despite these reductions, activists and even some media stories continue to claim that power plant pollution has been getting worse.

Millions gasping for air? Hadn’t noticed. Particulate levels in the United States are lower than at any time since the industrial revolution. PM has declined more than 80 percent since the early 1900s. PM2.5 is down 40 percent over the last 20 years and 10 percent in just the last four years. If EPA’s PM2.5 standard had existed in 1980, about 80% of the nation would have exceeded it. Today, the exceedance rate is down to 18%.

While it’s unfortunate that activists continue to misinform and frighten the public with extreme and ridiculous claims, the press deserves the lion’s share of the blame for failing to call them on it. Like most media stories on air pollution, today’s news items on the EPA PM story reported activists’ claims without critical review.

Despite continued reductions in PM2.5, some areas of the country still violate EPA’s PM2.5 standard. But exceeding the standard isn’t nearly as bad as you might think. First, EPA has two PM2.5 standards-a 24-hour standard for short-term PM2.5 levels and annual-average standard. Virtually the entire nation-99.6% of monitoring sites-already attains the 24-hour standard, in most cases with plenty of room to spare. So non-attainment is limited almost solely to average PM2.5 levels. Second, most areas that exceed the annual standard do so by a small margin. Sixty percent of non-attainment locations could reach attainment with PM2.5 reductions of less than 10%. Another 23% of locations would need reductions of 10% to 20%.

Third, and most important, the health effects of current PM2.5 levels have been greatly exaggerated by EPA and activists. EPA’s annual PM2.5 standard is based mainly on the American Cancer Society (ACS) PM study, which reported an association between PM2.5 and mortality. But some odd features of the study suggest that PM is unlikely to be responsible.

According to the ACS results, PM increased mortality in men, but not women; in those with no more than a high school degree, but not those with at least some college; in former-smokers, but not current- or never-smokers; and in those who said they were moderately active, but not the very active or the sedentary. These odd and biologically implausible variations in the ostensible effects of low-level PM suggest that the association between PM and mortality is spurious and doesn’t represent a genuine cause-and-effect relationship.

Claims about low-level PM and health suffer from additional biological plausibility problems. Coal-fired power plants contribute about 25 to 50 percent of PM2.5 in the eastern half of the U.S. in form of sulfate formed from SO2 emissions. But toxicology studies with human volunteers suggest that sulfate is not toxic, even at exposures many times greater than even today’s peak levels, and even in people with respiratory diseases. Indeed, ammonium sulfate, the main form of sulfate PM, is used as an inert control-that is, a substance not expected to have any health effects-in studies of the health effects of acidic aerosols, while magnesium sulfate is used therapeutically to reduce airway constriction in asthmatics. Likewise, nitrate PM, which makes up about 25 to 50 percent of PM in the western U.S., has also been without health effects in controlled studies.

EPA attributes about 90 percent of the benefits of all air pollution regulation to lives saved due to PM reductions. If PM at current levels isn’t killing people, then almost all of the benefits EPA claims for clean-air regulation are bogus. This probably explains why regulators and activists have so staunchly defended PM mortality claims and ignored contrary evidence.

Even the number of people living in areas that violate the PM2.5 standard has been exaggerated. Rather than the 100 million figure reported in news stories, the true value is more like 45 million. The overestimate is due to two factors. First, EPA included many counties not because they violate the PM2.5 standard, but because EPA believes they help cause violations in other counties. This makes sense for regulatory policy, but not for determining PM exposure. Second, counties that monitor PM levels at more than one location sometimes violate the standard in one area, but comply in another, yet EPA counts all people in the county as living in areas that violate the standard. Regardless, most news stories used the 100 million figure in their headlines or first paragraph, with a few adding a qualifier near the end of the story.

Despite the weak evidence of harm from current PM2.5 levels, EPA’s PM2.5 non-attainment designations will set in motion a massive Clean Air Act planning and regulation process under which each non-attainment area must develop and implement a State Implementation Plan (SIP) demonstrating attainment of federal PM2.5 standards by between 2010 and 2015. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people around the country will spend much or all of their time developing, reviewing, and maintaining these plans.

Non-attainment areas will also have to prove to EPA that their regional transportation plans are in “conformity” with their SIPs. That is, they’ll have to convince EPA that, say, adding more freeway capacity won’t cause an increase in emissions above a level permitted by the SIP. A region that fails the conformity test risks losing its federal transportation funds. SIPs and Transportation Conformity also create many opportunities for the inevitable activist lawsuits that are part and parcel of the Clean Air Act process.

And it is virtually all process. Failing to have an approved SIP or to demonstrate conformity (on paper) carries far worse penalties than failing to actually clean the air. Only the former can result in loss of highway funds and other costly sanctions.

Furthermore, all of this planning is irrelevant to future air quality improvements. The actions necessary to eliminate almost all remaining air pollution have already been taken through regulations for all types of motor vehicles, for power plants, and for industrial facilities.1 PM2.5 will inevitably continue to decline even if we do nothing new.

Rather than a way to reduce pollution, the SIP and conformity processes and the plans, working groups, reports, and regulations that flow from them are mainly a system for maintaining a large cadre of professional regulators and activists and giving them the power to micromanage economic activity and individuals’ private choices.

Mr. Leavitt may believe that creating PM2.5 non-attainment areas will improve public health. But EPA’s action will merely unleash a new layer of Clean Air Act bureaucracy.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct fellow at Reason Foundation and visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.


1. For the details, see “New Source of Confusion,” Tech Central Station, August 23, 2003.