WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday declined to tighten controls on industrial soot emissions, disregarding an emerging scientific link between dirty air and Covid-19 death rates.
In one of the final policy moves of an administration that has spent the past four years weakening or rolling back more than 100 environmental regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a regulation that keeps in place the current rules on tiny, lung-damaging industrial particles, known as PM 2.5, instead of strengthening them, even though the agency’s own scientists have warned of the links between the pollutants and respiratory illness. In April, researchers at Harvard released the first nationwide study linking long-term exposure to PM 2.5 and Covid-19 death rates.
E.P.A. administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the rule Wednesday afternoon on a video call with reporters, joined by the governor and the deputy attorney general of West Virginia, who have urged President Trump to loosen rules on coal pollution since he first launched his presidential campaign .
Although the E.P.A.’s own staff scientists recommended tightening the current emissions rule, Mr. Wheeler said the scientific evidence was insufficient to merit doing so.
“It comes after careful consultation with the agency’s independent scientific advisory board and consideration of over 60,000 public comments,” he said.
Douglas Buffington, the deputy attorney general of West Virginia, said the rule “represents a big win for West Virginia coal.”
“If they had been tightening it could have been a huge blow to the coal industry,” he said, adding, “This is only possible when you have reasonable and understanding leadership in the federal government.”
Mr. Trump’s political appointees rushed to finalize the soot rule this fall in hopes of locking in the standard, according to a person familiar with the matter. By law, the E.P.A. is required every five years to review the latest science and update the soot standard. However, legal experts said that nothing could stop the incoming Biden administration from reviewing and tightening the standard sooner than that.
Already, president-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is planning to move forward quickly in his first months in office to reinstate and strengthen many of the environmental rules rolled back by Mr. Trump.
“Given the deadly nature of this pollutant, my advice to the new administration would be to very quickly embark on the process to make the standard more stringent,” said Richard Revesz, an expert on environmental law at New York University.
A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to say whether the Biden administration would do that, but he noted that when the Harvard study came out in April, Mr. Biden wrote on Twitter, “We’re starting to see evidence that long-term exposure to air pollution — which disproportionately affects communities of color & low-income communities — is linked to COVID-19 death rates.”
Mr. Biden’s environmental policy proposals include a pledge to “prioritize strategies and technologies that reduce traditional air pollution in disadvantaged communities.”
Public health experts say the rule defies scientific research, including the work of the E.P.A.’s own public health experts, which indicates that PM 2.5 pollution contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, and that even a slight tightening of controls on fine soot could save thousands of American lives.
“There is a growing body of evidence that PM 2.5 is more harmful than previously understood,” said Paul Billings, a senior vice president at the American Lung Association. “There is a growing body of evidence that it is linked to neurological damage. And there is a growing body of evidence linking exposure of PM 2.5 to elevated levels of increased Covid morbidity.”
The Harvard study published in April found that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution.
Given that scientific record, which would be used in lawsuits against the Trump rule, the new regulation appears to have weak legal standing, and a new Biden-appointed E.P.A. chief would likely have a solid legal justification for tightening the rule, said Mr. Revesz, the environmental law expert.
“The arguments against this rule are strong,” he said. “Even before that Harvard study there was very strong scientific evidence that stronger controls are merited. The Covid crisis reinforced that, but we didn’t need the Covid crisis to tell us that.”
Mr. Wheeler said that the findings of the Harvard study were not taken into account in the decision not to tighten the rule, because, although the study was published in April, the scientific peer review process of it was not completed until November.
“We looked at it but it would have been inappropriate to consider it,” he said. Mr. Wheeler said that he expects the study will be included in the next review of the rule. “We will start the next five-year review tomorrow. We will take a look at all the science.”
Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard who led the PM 2.5 study, said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the administration’s decision.
“This is highly irresponsible,” she said. “It follows this pattern of this administration ignoring science and scientists.” Of the incoming Biden administration, she said, “I truly, truly hope they revise the rule. The evidence is there. It’s so bad.”
The new rule retains a standard enacted in 2012, during the Obama administration. That rule limited the pollution of industrial fine soot particles — each about 1/30th the width of a human hair, but associated with heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths — to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.
When E.P.A. scientists conducted that mandatory review, many concluded that if the federal government tightened that standard to about nine micrograms per cubic meter, more than 10,000 American lives could be saved a year.
In a draft 457-page scientific assessment of the risks associated with keeping or strengthening the fine soot pollution rule, career scientists at the E.P.A. estimated that the current standard is “associated with 45,000 deaths” annually. The scientists wrote that if the rule were tightened to nine micrograms per cubic meter, annual deaths would fall by about 27 percent, or 12,150 people a year.
After the publication of that report, numerous industries, including oil and coal companies, automakers and chemical manufacturers, urged the Trump administration to disregard the findings and not tighten the rule.
In a November 2019 public comment submitted by 13 industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry representatives wrote, “significant uncertainty remains about the relationship between exposure to PM 2.5 and adverse effects on public health.”
The E.P.A.’s leaders agreed with the industries’ assessment. In December last year, a seven-member E.P.A. advisory panel, composed mostly of members appointed by Trump administration, told Mr. Wheeler the career scientists’ findings were not conclusive enough to support tightening the rule. A final version of the scientists’ report, published in January to preview the still-unpublished rule, does say the rule as it stands contributes to 45,000 deaths annually, but it also says only that tightening it would reduce “health risks,” not deaths.