SALT LAKE CITY — Clean air advocates in Utah are praising a new proposal by the EPA to lower the annual standard for soot and other fine particulate pollution, saying the move is long overdue.

"It should be noted that virtually every major medical association in the country has been calling for the EPA to make the standard more strict for several years now," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

The EPA said 99 percent of the country should be able to meet the new standard absent any additional state or local action by the year 2020. The exceptions are six counties — including two in California, one in Montana and another in Alabama.

"These remaining six counties have unique challenges and the EPA is prepared to work with them," said Gina McCarthy, the agency's assistant administrator.

In a teleconference Friday to address the proposal, McCarthy said dropping the annual standard from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to a range of 12 micrograms to 13 micrograms is an obtainable goal for industry and with today's cleaner car technology.

McCarthy said the proposed change grew out of advice from the agency's independent science advisers based on an "extensive" body of scientific studies that show negative health impacts at lower levels than what has been previously understood.

"It's really about the science," she said. "There are thousands of studies that underpin what we understand about the science of particulate matter and the public health consequences of exposure."

The new standard, she said, will go toward being even more protective of public health against a dangerous pollutant linked to serious health effects such as premature death heart attacks and strokes. She said children with asthma and the elderly deserve to breathe cleaner air.

By proposing a range, the agency will collect input from the public as well as industry representatives and public health groups to help determine the appropriate "final" standard, which will be formalized by mid-December.

"We hope that they will choose the lower end of the range they are considering," Moench said.

McCarthy said the proposal does not affect acceptable daily limits of PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, or daily limits set for PM 10, more coarsely-configured air pollutants.

In that aspect, Moench expressed disappointment that the federal agency did not act to address the PM 10 standard and make it more stringent. Still, he said the Friday move by the EPA will require Utah to embrace a more aggressive position when it comes to air pollution.

"Utah will need to ramp up their pollution reduction strategy, however, in order to meet that standard, including more comprehensive mass transit, less money devoted to freeways, and more concessions from Kennecott and the oil refineries."

The EPA announced the proposed new standards in response to legal action brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the American Lung Association and the National Parks Conservation Association. A subsequent federal court ruling required the agency to update the standard using the best available science.

"Particle pollution kills — the science is clear, and overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution at levels currently labeled as officially 'safe' causes heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks," said Dr. Albert Rizzo, chair of the board of the American Lung Association. "The Clean Air Act gives the American public the truth about pollution that is threatening their lives and health — just as they would expect the truth from their doctor."   

The agency will accept public comment for 63 days after the proposed standards are published in the Federal Register. The agency will hold two public hearings — one in Sacramento and one in Philadelphia.

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