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EPA tightens soot standard by 20 percent

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New soot standards issued Dec. 14 by the Environmental Protection Agency reduce by 20 percent the amount of pollution that can be emitted by power plants and other sources of combustion.

The new annual standard for fine particulate matter — PM2.5, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrograms — is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, or ug/m3, down from 15.

Two West Virginia counties — Brooke and Marshall — would not meet that standard based on the three-year average through September 2012, according to Fred Durham at the Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Air Quality. Designations of "nonattainment" will be made in 2014.

However by 2020, when compliance is required, implementation of other air quality rules should bring even those counties into compliance with the annual PM2.5 standard.

Fine particle pollution comes directly from power plants, diesel vehicles, wood-burning stoves and other combustion sources. It also forms indirectly when the combustion pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides meet in the atmosphere.

When people breathe fine particle pollution, it enters the lungs and bloodstream and can cause heart and lung problems and premature death.

EPA estimates health benefits of the revised standard to range from $4 billion to over $9 billion per year, with estimated costs of implementation ranging from $53 million to $350 million.

Because PM2.5 emissions are controlled to some extent through compliance with other emissions standards, the EPA said seven counties nationwide would need additional measures in order to meet  the standard by 2020. All are in southern California.

By 2030, it is expected that all standards that cut PM2.5 from diesel vehicles and equipment alone will prevent up to 40,000 premature deaths, 32,000 hospital admissions and 4.7 million days of work lost due to illness.

The EPA set the annual PM2.5 standard at 15 ug/m3 in 1997 but drew legal challenge when it maintained that standard in a 2006 rulemaking. Lawsuits followed and a federal court required the agency to update the standard based on best available science.

The draft rulemaking issued in June proposed to lower the standard to between 12 and 13 micrograms per cubic centimeter.

The new rule affects only the annual standard for PM2.5. The action left in place the existing 24-hour PM2.5 standard, set at 35 ug/m3 in 2006, and the coarse PM limit of 150 ug/m3 that was set in 1987.