A worker crosses a pedestrian bridge on their way to work a shift at the ND Paper mill in Rumford in 2020. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to significantly strengthen limits on fine particle matter, one of the nation’s most widespread deadly air pollutants, even as industry groups warn that the standard could erase manufacturing jobs across the country.

Several major companies, trade associations and some Democratic lobbyists are trying to preempt the rule by suggesting it could harm President Biden’s reelection chances in key swing states. They say the tougher standard for soot and other pollutants could destroy factory jobs and investments in the Midwest and elsewhere, undermining Biden’s pitch that he has revitalized these areas more than Donald Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner.

Public health advocates strongly disagree with the industry’s assertions. They say strengthening the soot standard would yield significant medical and economic benefits by preventing thousands of hospitalizations, lost workdays and lost lives, particularly in communities of color that are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy air.

Efforts to curb PM2.5 – tiny particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair – have produced enormous public health benefits along with massive political pushback. These particles, which include soot, can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing asthma, heart disease and thousands of premature deaths each year.

EPA lawyers have said in court filings that the soot rule could be finalized by the end of January. As soon as next week, the agency is expected to lower the annual soot standard to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from the current standard of 12 micrograms, according to two people briefed on the matter who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The EPA has estimated that if finalized, an annual soot standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths and 270,000 lost workdays per year.

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“Every decision that EPA makes under the Clean Air Act is grounded in the best available science and rooted in the agency’s commitment to protecting people’s health,” EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said in an email. “As this administration has proven time and again, safeguarding public health and the environment and ensuring robust economic growth go hand in hand.”

A limit of 9 micrograms could sharply increase the number of counties that violate the soot standard or just below the threshold, according to a map produced by the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group. Companies would then have a harder time getting permits to build or expand their industrial plants, potentially prompting them to move to other countries with weaker environmental rules, the group says.

“Our average ambient level of PM2.5 in this country is 8; in China and India, it’s about five to six times that level,” said Heidi Brock, the American Forest & Paper Association’s president and chief executive. “What sense does it make to offshore jobs from this country, where we have some of the cleanest air on the planet?”

The regions just below the tougher soot standard include seven swing states – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – where the Biden and Trump campaigns have focused most of their resources. The regions in violation of the standard – those shaded in red on the association’s map – include cities with large populations of Black voters who were crucial to Biden’s victory in 2020.

“If you look at the map and overlay in your mind ‘get out the vote’ areas for Biden in critical states, you can’t help but be concerned,” said Rich Gold, a Democratic lobbyist who leads the law firm Holland & Knight’s public policy and regulation group and represents the American Forest & Paper Association, among other industry clients.

“Detroit is red. Philadelphia is red,” he added. “Why would the White House effectively redline new manufacturing facilities in urban Democratic strongholds where young workers need high-paying, frequently unionized manufacturing jobs?”

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The National Association of Manufacturers, another trade organization, has produced its map showing that 200 counties could be out of compliance with a tougher soot rule. The group also ran a television ad in November warning that the EPA soot rule could “restrict growth and investment across America, threatening gains” from Biden’s economic policies. It aired 126 times in the Washington, D.C., area that month, according to the tracking firm AdImpact.

“We’ve been very pleased with the president’s focus on growing manufacturing investment and jobs in the United States,” said Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers. “But oftentimes, it seems his agencies are completely at odds with his agenda.”

Paul Billings, national senior vice president for public policy for the American Lung Association, questioned the methodology underlying the business groups’ maps. He said the groups relied on soot measurements from monitors that are dozens of miles away from the relevant counties, and that facilities in these counties would probably still be able to get permits under the Clean Air Act.

Billings, who has advocated for stronger pollution standards for more than three decades, said business groups have a long history of fighting tougher pollution rules by predicting doomsday scenarios that never actually come to pass.

“We’ve heard the same Chicken Little ‘the sky is falling’ argument from industry every time EPA has proposed an update to the PM standard,” he said. “And the industry has a perfect record on their projections: They’ve been wrong every single time about what the impact would be on economic growth and development.”

Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that supports tougher pollution rules, conducted a recent analysis that found cities nationwide have reduced soot pollution while expanding their economies. Philadelphia, a city that Biden has frequently campaigned in, cut soot pollution by 15.2% from 2012 to 2021 while lowering the unemployment rate by 2.2 percentage points and increasing gross domestic product by 8.7%, the analysis found.

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On the campaign trail, Biden has repeatedly declared that his economic policies are reviving U.S. manufacturing. He has pointed to new electric vehicle battery plants spurred by his signature climate law, construction projects encouraged by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and computer chip factories subsidized by the 2022 semiconductor law.

“Where is it written that America can’t lead the world again in manufacturing?” Biden asked during an August visit to a wind tower manufacturing facility in New Mexico.

Major manufacturers create PM2.5 pollution by burning gasoline, oil, diesel or wood at power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities. Soot also comes from the more than 284 million cars and trucks on the nation’s roads. Experts say the industry can reduce its soot output by installing pollution-control technologies, such as scrubbers at power plants, and by transitioning to cleaner vehicles.

Scientific studies have shown that curbing soot pollution could particularly help communities of color and poor neighborhoods, which are disproportionately located near highways and industrial facilities. Research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Black Americans and low-income white Americans “may benefit more from lower PM2.5 levels” than higher-income white Americans.

“Lowering the standard to 8 micrograms per cubic meter, in terms of long-term exposure, would benefit vulnerable communities the most,” said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study.

Research has also found that wildfire smoke, a major nonindustrial source of soot, has slowed or reversed air quality improvements in much of the country. Industry groups have seized on these findings to argue that their soot emissions are a small part of the problem. But public health experts counter that wildfires are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn is exacerbated by industrial pollution.

“We know that these wildfires are getting worse and more intense due to climate change,” said Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “And it’s the same industries that emit PM2.5 that also emit a lot of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

The question of how to set an acceptable level of soot exposure has been the subject of political wrangling for more than a decade. In 2012, President Barack Obama announced he would tighten the annual soot standard to 12 micrograms, but he waited to finalize the controversial rule until after his reelection. In 2020, Trump rejected tougher soot standards and embraced industry groups’ argument that the existing regulation was protective enough.

“The U.S. now has some of the lowest fine particulate matter in the world,” Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s EPA administrator, said at the time.

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