EPA Strengthens Soot Standard, Saving Thousands of Lives and Billions of Dollars; 10+ Texas Counties Risk Being Out of Compliance

Several smokestacks spew plumes of dark pollution against the backdrop of a red sky.

Photo by eric1513 via Canva

Contact: Jessica King, jessica.king@sierraclub.org

On February 7th, the EPA released updated National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter (PM2.5), 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 PM2.5, also known as soot, lower 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. 

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. 

While EPA will determine whether certain areas comply in the future, current data indicates that about 120 different areas through the U.S. might not meet the new standard, though the vast majority should meet the standard as new car and truck standards are implemented. In Texas, up to 10 counties - Harris, El Paso, Travis, Hidalgo, Webb, Cameron, Tarrant, Dallas, Kleberg, and Bowie - currently would be in violation of the new standard. Some other counties - including  Jefferson, Nueces and Bexar - might also be close to violating the standards if they do not clean up their airsheds. A full list of counties and current levels can be found here.

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.

In response, Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous released the following statement:
“We’re glad to see the Biden Administration answered the call to reduce harmful soot pollution. The decision to strengthen the annual particulate matter standards is more than just policy; it's about securing clean and safe air for our families and communities. It's about keeping kids in school, and protecting ourselves and our neighbors from the very real risks of asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. 

“It’s shameful that, in the face of such clear and compelling evidence of the public health and economic benefits of stronger soot standards, big polluters and their allies in Washington do everything in their power to undermine these commonsense air pollution standards. Their resistance is a stark reminder that the fight for clean air and a healthier future is far from over, and we will continue working to ensure the benefits of these stronger air pollution standards reach the communities that need them most.” 

In response, Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter’s Clean Air Director Neil Carman released the following statement:

“This commonsense strengthening is long overdue and will eventually help protect families throughout Texas, but especially in Houston, the Austin area, El Paso, and the Rio Grande Valley. While we hope that the EPA will also address and strengthen the 24-hour standard, the annual standard will force the state and local governments in these areas to cut down on pollution from ports and trains, industrial pollution, coal plants, asphalt batch plants, agricultural burning, and old diesel trucks among other sectors.”

In response, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter’s Conservation Director Cyrus Reed said, 

“While these new standards will require action by industry and government alike, fortunately, there are large federal funding opportunities through the Federal Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help local government, private industry, and individuals to invest in pollution control equipment and cleaner technologies. From investing in cleaner forms of energy like solar and storage, energy efficiency programs, and funding to electrify cars, buses, and heavy duty trucks, Texas can be a leader on a cleaner future, especially for frontline communities facing heavy particulate matter pollution.”