EPA Remains the “Anti-Environmental Protection Agency”; Wheeler Refuses to Tighten the PM 2.5 NAAQS

After more than three years of ignoring science whenever it does not support this Administration’s preferred outcomes, the issue of the future of science in environmental regulation has now been well and truly joined.  Yesterday, Administrator Wheeler, disagreeing with the recommendation of EPA’s own staff, announced that EPA is proposing to retain the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 of 12 ug/m3, notwithstanding substantial evidence that PM2.5 poses significant risks even below 10 ug/m3

In the long-gone days prior to January 2017, this would be short and easy.  The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee would have said that the current standard is not protective.  NGOs and states would have sued, the D.C. Circuit would have vacated EPA’s decision, and even a right-leaning Supreme Court probably would not have thought it necessary to hear a further appeal.

Now, however, the Chair of CASAC doesn’t believe that epidemiology provides a basis for setting NAAQS and CASAC recommended keeping the current standard.  What happens when EPA’s owns science advisors don’t believe in science?  And what happens when the most outcome-based Supreme Court in living memory lies in wait?

I truly don’t know.  I suspect that the D.C. Circuit, depending upon the panel, might still find a decision to keep the current standard to be arbitrary and capricious, but I would not count on the Supreme Court affirming that decision.

In the meantime, I am curious about Administrator Wheeler.  Does he really believe what he is saying or does he just not care that this decision will fairly directly lead to thousands of additional deaths?  As EPA’s proposed rule acknowledges, NAAQS are standards,

the attainment and maintenance of which in the judgment of the Administrator, based on such criteria and allowing an adequate margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health.

Greenwire reports that Administrator Wheeler told reporters that “there’s still a lot of uncertainty” surrounding the research supporting the lower PM2.5 NAAQS.  Of course, since the statutory standard requires “an adequate margin of safety,” one would have thought that the uncertainty supports more stringent standards, rather than less stringent ones. Indeed, ever since Ethyl Corp. v. EPA, courts have been clear that EPA must be prepared to regulate even in the face of uncertainty if it is to fulfill its mission to protect the public.

I may not be able to predict what the courts will do, but I’m confident that history will not treat this Administration kindly.  Over time, there is little doubt that the evidence against PM2.5 is only going to grow stronger.  However, by the time a future administration acts on that accumulated weight of data, thousands of people will have died needlessly.

Well done, Mr. Wheeler.

4 thoughts on “EPA Remains the “Anti-Environmental Protection Agency”; Wheeler Refuses to Tighten the PM 2.5 NAAQS

  1. Did the CASAC take into account the evidence you reported of additive risk of PM 2.5 to the severity of COVID 19 effects? That would point strongly towards tightening the PM 2.5 standard. I bet not …

      • The reported evidence “of additive risk of PM 2.5 to the severity of COVID 19 effects” from the Harvard School of Public Health is based on an unverified and implausible regression model that contains main effects but no interactions. Such a model incorrectly predicts that increases in PM2.5 lead to increases in COVID19 deaths even if population density is zero, i.e., even if there are no people to die. Such unrealistic modeling does not provide a trustworthy, well-validated basis for attributing COVID-19 risks to PM2.5.

        The HSPH model also omits obvious huge potential confounders, such as urban-rural gradient. (It looks at average population density by county, but not at essential more local information on whether the population is crowded together or spread out.) It does not control for residual confounding by age (e.g., 85-year old, 75-year old, and 65-year old people have very different risks, but are lumped into one category of “over 65”). In short, it presents associations that have not fully controlled for confounding as if they showed that exposure to PM2.5 increased mortality risks. But what they report might well amount to no more than the fact that crowded cities have more pollution and also more COVID-19 mortalities per capita. That is the nature of many epidemics. To interpret this association as evidence that PM2.5 causes increased COVID-19 deaths seems to me irresponsible, as the regression models, aside from its technical flaws, is not a causal model.

  2. You state “Now, however, the Chair of CASAC doesn’t believe that epidemiology provides a basis for setting NAAQS and CASAC recommended keeping the current standard. What happens when EPA’s owns science advisors don’t believe in science?” However, it is precisely because members of the CASAC *do* believe in science that they insisted on applying traditional scientific method to assess the evidence that PM2.5 causes increased mortality risks. Their conclusions were consonant with a substantial literature and with the findings of other reviewers that “Further evaluations of measures to reduce outdoor air pollution in different countries, in particular in low- and middle-income countries, are needed. Wherever possible, future evaluations should apply more reliable and standardized methods to analyze the data.” (https://www.cochrane.org/CD010919/PUBHLTH_ambient-air-quality-what-works-reduce-pollution-and-improve-health).

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