Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, did not produce the record some had hoped for, as she was continually held back from her ambitious regulatory plans by business and political opponents. And even her last major action — she announced last week that she is leaving her post — is overdue but still welcome. The EPA is demanding of local governments a 20% reduction in soot emissions. If it is successful in producing those results, the new standards will save thousands of lives and reduce the nation's healthcare costs by billions of dollars. The new rule is particularly important to Southern and Central California, where cleaning up soot emissions will be particularly challenging.
The public is used to thinking of soot as the ashy, dirty smoke seen wafting from old diesel vehicles and industrial smokestacks. But what causes more pressing health concerns are the microscopic particles we can't see amid the smoke. Soot can cause heart and lung problems and trigger asthma attacks. Strict enforcement of the new rules will begin in 2020, with some regions given extensions to 2025. By the year 2030, the stricter standards are expected to prevent a total of 32,000 hospital admissions and 4.7 million lost work days from illness.
National restrictions on soot emissions were originally issued in 1997, but that was seen as a temporary step, with more stringent rules to come in following years. The George W. Bush administration rejected stricter standards in 2006. In 2009, a federal court ordered the EPA to devise tighter rules. The Obama administration dragged its feet, and last year 11 states, including California, successfully sued, leading to the regulations that Jackson announced in December.
Industry and conservative Republicans have fought against tighter soot restrictions for years, arguing that the EPA would be killing jobs. But industry doesn't have the right to kill or sicken people in order to keep expenses low. The EPA estimates the cost to industry at somewhere between $53 million and $350 million a year; the estimated savings by preventing illness, hospitalization and work loss is estimated at a minimum of $3.7 billion a year. The public should not subsidize industry's indifference.
Existing programs affecting diesel engines and coal plants have begun the work of reducing soot. At this point, all but 66 counties nationwide already meet the EPA standards. By 2020, only seven are expected to be in violation of the new rules — but all of those, including Los Angeles, are in Southern or Central California.
Unlike eastern areas of the United States, the chief source of soot in California isn't coal plants; it's tailpipe emissions, especially from diesel trucks and, in the Central Valley, farm equipment. California already has a program to reduce diesel truck emissions by requiring trucks to be retrofitted with filters that remove 85% of the soot. And in fact, there has been significant improvement in cleaning up some of these pollutants, both by the Port of Los Angeles and by companies such as Coca-Cola that have voluntarily retrofitted their trucks. The regulations are rolled out over time, and the start of the new year marked the deadline for retrofitting most heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses made from 2000 to 2004.
But the state's Air Resources Board has been less than stringent about enforcing the law and has not yet set retrofit rules for farm equipment. In December 2010, it delayed implementation of the truck rules because of the economy. Surveys by an association of filter manufacturers found that sales of the soot filters were running at about half of what they should have been during 2011 and the first half of 2012. But the board has been warning truckers that it plans stepped-up enforcement of the rules starting this month. That's an important sign of progress and suggests the potential for real gains once the new federal regulations take their belated effect.