EPA Strengthens Soot Standards, Addressing Air Pollution and Safeguarding Public Health


Megan Wittman, megan.wittman@sierraclub.org

Oak Creek, WI – Today, the EPA released updated National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter (PM2.5), or soot, taking a positive and long-awaited step toward addressing a dangerous and deadly air pollutant responsible for over 100,000 deaths in the United States every year. 

EPA’s final air quality standards for soot lowers the annual standards from 12 mcg/m3 to 9 mcg/m3, and will prevent up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays per year while bringing as much as $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032, when the standards are in full effect. 

Evidence shows exposure to soot pollution increases the risk of asthma, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and premature death. 63 million people in the United States experience unhealthy spikes in daily soot pollution, and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to higher-than-average levels of this dangerous pollutant.

Additionally, a Clean Wisconsin analysis found that People of Color in Wisconsin are more likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution than white people, creating the third-highest racial disparity in the nation, behind only New York and Pennsylvania.

In 2020, We Energies, a subsidiary of WEC Energy Group, announced that it would close its Oak Creek Power Plant starting in 2023, replacing its burning coal with wind, solar, and fossil gas. Methane, the primary component of fossil gas, is a potent greenhouse gas with negative climate and health impacts. We Energies has continued to push back the Oak Creek plant’s retirement dates. In October, WEC Energy Group announced that Oak Creek units 5-6 will retire in May 2024, and units 7-8 will retire in late 2025. Meanwhile, We Energies has continued to raise rates for customers.

Elizabeth Ward, Sierra Club - Wisconsin Chapter Director released the following statement:

“These stronger standards are a long-overdue step that will help hold coal-burning utilities like We Energies accountable for their harm to public health and our environment. Particulate matter is the most deadly and destructive air pollutant there is, but it disproportionately burdens communities of color, especially here in Wisconsin.

“The pollution from We Energies’ Oak Creek plant has long harmed community members throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Residents have called for the retirement of these plans and for We Energies to move towards clean energy. Yet, We Energies has delayed the closure of the plant multiple times and instead of committing to a clean energy transition like they claim to, We Energies and WEC have continued operating their expensive coal plants and proposing more gas infrastructure. 

“It’s past time Wisconsin’s utilities catch up. These updated EPA standards are a welcome change to bring our utilities out of the fossil period.”

More information on the updated NAAQS

The final standards do not strengthen the 24-hour standard, which is critical for protecting against dangerous short-term spikes in air pollution and provides the basis for the air quality index that millions use to determine the quality of the air they breathe on any given day.

EPA will now determine areas of the country that do not meet the new standard, and will release determinations within two years. States that do not meet the new standards will then have 18 months to develop and submit plans to comply. 


About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.