January 3, 2023
Dear President Biden and Administrator Regan,
The Clean Air for the Long Haul Cohort writes to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen and finalize critical regulations to safeguard environmental justice communities and tackle climate change by the end of year, or at the latest, early 2024.
The Clean Air for the Long Haul (the “Cohort”) is a national coalition of environmental justice organizations working collectively to advance environmental justice by seeking emissions reductions in the power and transportation sectors. The Cohort creates and coordinates campaigns to amplify the voices and positions of overburdened communities in federal rulemakings and actively champions the adoption and enforcement of clean air and climate justice policies that reduce emissions of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases and protects the health of Black, Brown, Tribal, Indigenous, and low-income communities across the United States.
The power and transportation sectors are major culprits for harmful air pollution our communities are plagued with every day. Due to a legacy of discriminatory policies, environmental justice communities are often located near power plants, pipelines, highways, and other power and transportation infrastructure. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2023 report, people of color are 3.7 times more likely to live in counties with failing national air quality standards than white people. As such, our communities are unjustly exposed to higher-than-average concentrations of health harming pollutants and at greater risk of severe health impacts and premature deaths. Disparities in exposure and health risks from air pollution have only increased over time relative to air quality standards set by the EPA. For example, although it was not news to many in our communities, the link between poor air quality and worse health outcomes was brought starkly into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic: studies have shown that an increase in long-term air pollution exposure (1 µg/m3) led to a COVID-19 death rate that is eight percent above the risk borne by residents of communities without such exposure.
Our communities are also on the front lines of the climate crisis. As a direct consequence of “ongoing systemic discrimination, exclusion, and under- or disinvestment”, climate change has only exacerbated environmental, health, and other pre-existing socio-economic inequities in this country”. The recently released Fifth National Climate Assessment reports what we already know is happening on the ground – communities of color and low-income, Tribes and Indigenous Peoples experience high exposure and vulnerability to the most severe impacts of the climate crisis such as extreme heat and flooding.
We appreciate efforts the Biden Administration has made to prioritize equity and environmental justice, including the launch of the new Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the roll out of grant opportunities for community-driven projects like EPA’s $2 billion Community Change Grants funded under the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The regulatory process is also a critical avenue to reduce greenhouse gases as well as save lives and bring clean air to communities overburdened by pollution. EPA’s recent finalization of the rule to reduce methane emissions and other toxic pollution will go a long way toward fighting climate change and reducing the health and safety risks our communities face from oil and gas infrastructure and operations.
Now, we call on the White House and the EPA to make further progress towards advancing climate action and protecting public health, especially for environmental justice communities by strengthening and finalizing the following standards:
National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter
Environmental justice communities are 1.54 times more exposed to particulate pollution than the overall population. In fact, an EPA analysis in 2021 showed that regardless of location and income, Black and Brown populations are disproportionately and chronically exposed to higher-than-average particulate matter (PM) from nearly every major source of pollution, including power plants, vehicles, and manufacturing. As such, our communities suffer from adverse health impacts from exposure to this small but deadly pollutant. These range from asthma, lung disease, and heart attacks to preterm births and premature deaths.
This is why it is crucial for the EPA to set a strong annual standard of no higher than 8 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) by year’s end. The current standard of 12 μg/m3 is not aligned with the latest science and woefully inadequate to protect public health as advised by the EPA’s Clean Air Advisory Committee. While the lower end of EPA’s proposed standard of 9 μg/m3 will offer noteworthy benefits when compared to the current level, at 8 μg/m3 we see the highest reductions and avoided deaths, particularly for the Black people. Moreover, EPA should also tighten the 24-hour/daily standard no higher than 25 μg/m3 for PM 2.5 as opposed to maintaining the current standard of 35 µg/m³ to protect our communities, who are at greater risk from short-term spikes in harmful soot pollution. These bold actions must be complemented with robust air quality monitoring and mitigation, including a transition to zero-emission technologies, and strong state enforcement to realize pollution reductions and health improvements in environmental justice communities.
National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone
Relatedly, we were disappointed about EPA’s decision to delay updating and tightening the ozone NAAQs. Exposure to smog-causing ozone is linked to asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses like COPD, in addition to metabolic disorders, brain inflammation, and reproductive and developmental harm for babies, including reduced fertility and preterm births as well as death. These health conditions are unjustly and disproportionately clustered in frontline communities. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee reviews, including its most recent, have repeatedly called for the strengthening of the current ozone standards, especially to protect vulnerable communities. Black people, for instance, are more likely to live in counties with worse ozone pollution, with little difference between income groups. The decision to initiate another 2 year review is deeply at odds with the administration’s stated commitment to environmental justice and will result in adverse health outcomes in our communities for generations to come. We call on the EPA to reconsider this move and tighten the national limit on ozone to reflect the latest science of 55-66 parts per billion (ppb) to protect public health and safeguard environmental justice communities.
Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS)
Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest sources of mercury and air toxics, such as benzene, dioxins, heavy metals, among others. These harmful pollutants cause permanent harm to developing fetuses, birth defects and developmental delays in children, cardiovascular disease in adults, skin irritation, lung disease, kidney damage and elevated risk of cancer. Mothers, unborn and young children as well as Low-income, Indigenous, people of color who often live in close proximity to these plants are particularly vulnerable to these adverse impacts. It is imperative that EPA quickly finalize the strongest mercury and air toxics standards for electric generating units. These limits have been effective in reducing hazardous air pollutants from power plants, including mercury pollution by 86% but it has been over a decade since they have been updated. EPA has an opportunity to deliver greater environmental benefits and improve the health for at-risk communities by setting emission standards for non-mercury metals (filterable particulate matter) to a more stringent 0.006 pounds per million British thermal units of heat input (lb/MMBtu) than the proposed 0.010 lb/MMBtu. Moreover, the Agency should require continuous emissions monitoring systems to protect fenceline communities.
Greenhouse Gas Standards and Guidelines for Fossil Fuel-Fired Power Plants
To begin to address the health and environmental harms the fossil fuel industry has put upon our communities, (while also taking climate action), we need a regulatory framework that enables a shift to clean, renewable energy and mandatory emissions reductions, especially in overburdened and fenceline communities. Yet, EPA’s proposed rule to limit greenhouse gases from new and existing power plants puts unwarranted faith in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, though it has no demonstrated basis to be considered the best system of emission reductions.
The proposed rule also fails to address the considerable cumulative impacts and burdens that CCS as well as “low GHG” hydrogen co-firing will further impose on environmental justice communities. These range from exposure to health harming co-pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter and extensive build out of carbon dioxide (CO2) pipelines and other infrastructure that result in displacement, loss of homes, businesses, and social and cultural centers to exposure to potential public health and safety risks from leaks and explosions that leads to respiratory complications and loss of life. The true costs to frontline communities were not reflected in the proposed rule’s environmental justice analysis, even more so with the complete omission of the impacts of natural gas power plants from the analysis. No proposed rule should be finalized without the EPA undertaking a comprehensive analysis on the impacts on environmental justice communities.
Multi-Pollutant Standards for Light- and Medium-Duty Vehicles for MY 2027-2032
Cars and light-duty trucks not only represent 94 percent of the nation’s on-road vehicles but they make up the greatest proportion of US greenhouse gas emissions of all transportation sources. In 2020 alone, these vehicles generated over 1 million tons of nitrogen oxides and over 33,400 tons of particulate matter. The health impacts of the passenger fleet are not equally felt. Getting rid of tailpipe emissions is required to bring much needed relief and health benefits for environmental justice communities negatively impacted by traffic congestion and pollution from cars, trucks, and vans. EPA must swiftly enact the strongest, long-term standards that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tailpipe air pollutants to send the appropriate signal to industry to hasten the transition to cleaner, zero-emission electric vehicles and to safeguard the health and safety of environmental justice communities unduly burdened by pollution from light- and medium-duty vehicles.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for Heavy-Duty Vehicles – Phase 3
Similarly, even though heavy-duty vehicles make up 4 percent of vehicles on the road, they contribute more than 25 percent of greenhouse gases within the transportation sector. Moreover, the heavy-duty truck sector is an egregious form of environmental injustice. It is a major source of harmful and deadly air pollutants such as soot- and smog-forming particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. EPA’s own analysis found that 72 million people, many of which are low-income and people of color, live within 200 meters of major trucking routes and unfairly experience higher rates of exposure and health risks from diesel exhaust from heavy-duty vehicles. Communities want tougher emission standards and a transition to cleaner, electric trucks and buses.
These vehicles are ready and available now and EPA’s rule must reflect the advancements in zero-emission technologies, commitments by major automakers, state clean truck standards, and what is possible with Inflation Reduction Act investments. The American Lung Association estimates that if truck fleets electrify by 2050, cumulative benefits could include $735 billion in public health benefits due to cleaner air, 66,800 fewer premature deaths, 1.75 million fewer asthma attacks, and 8.5 million fewer lost workdays. Again, we were disappointed to hear yet another delay in finalizing a critical climate and public health rule. We urge the Biden Administration to rise above industry interests and prioritize alleviating environmental and health burdens of transportation pollution that has plagued our communities for generations. EPA must finalize strong standards that limit greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution from the heavy-duty vehicle sector to send a clear signal to manufacturers for zero emission electric models, and ultimately, ensure clean air and protect the health of overburdened environmental justice communities as soon as possible.
The Biden Administration and the EPA have a unique opportunity to meet the moment and finalize stringent standards by the end of the year into early 2024. This suite of regulatory actions are crucial to tackling the dire public health and safety threat to overburdened communities from the power and transportation sectors and to honor commitments to climate, civil rights and environmental justice. The Clean Air for the Long Haul Cohort stands ready to work with you to realize the potential climate and health benefits of rules, especially for disadvantaged communities across the nation.
The Clean Air for the Long Haul Cohort