A national fight over clean air standards is coming to Sacramento today. The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a hearing today in Sacramento one of two in the nation on proposed revisions to its air quality rules.
"The question in front of the EPA is what level of air pollution makes people sick," said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C.
At issue is the annual standard for fine particulate matter, or soot. Current regulations allow 15 micrograms per cubic meter, but the EPA's newest proposal calls for 12 or 13 micrograms, a figure that both environmentalists and oil companies oppose. But that's where the agreement ends.
Environmental and clean air groups are calling for tighter standards, while the oil industry believes no changes are necessary. Federal law requires the EPA to review air quality standards every five years.
"The science is solid," Nolen said, citing multiple studies with data over a 15- to 18-year period. "We could avoid 35,000 premature deaths a year if we change the standard to 11 (micrograms per cubic meter) instead."
The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and natural gas trade association with more than 500 members, has questioned the need for the EPA to change its standards. API's director of regulatory and scientific affairs, Howard Feldman, calls the data "gray," at best.
"There's a whole host of conflicting data," Feldman said. "If there was compelling data, we would agree to the changes."
Despite the uproar from environmental groups and the oil industry, the EPA is standing by its proposed revisions.
"The proposed changes are based on an extensive body of scientific evidence that includes thousands of studies including many large studies which show negative health impacts at lower levels than previously understood," EPA spokeswoman Niloufar Glosson said in a statement.
API's Feldman also cites the cost of meeting the new standard as another factor for his organization's opposition, but Nolen doesn't buy that.
"Every time we do this review, the oil companies always say it's going to cost too much," Nolen said. "Cleaning up pollution saves money because we're keeping people out of the hospital."
Soot comes from a variety of places, with diesel trucks and wood-burning from both home and commercial sources the biggest polluters, Nolen said. She said the small particles can bypass the body's natural defense systems and lodge in the lungs, causing premature death, asthma and heart attacks, among other diseases.
Bonnie Holmes-Gen, executive director for air quality and health at the American Lung Association in California, said Sacramento has a "serious particle pollution problem."
"There were 29 days last winter when the air district issued an air quality alert so people couldn't burn wood," Holmes-Gen said.
Sacramento was ranked the ninth-worst particle-polluted city in the nation by the American Lung Association in 2011. The city moved to No. 21 in 2012.
"There's been a dramatic improvement, but much more needs to be done," Holmes-Gen said of Sacramento's air quality.
The Sacramento hearing at the California Air Resources Board at 10th and I streets is the second in which the public was invited to comment on the proposed revisions. The first was held Tuesday in Philadelphia. The EPA will release final standards Dec. 14.