Who Knows More About… the EPA’s Proposed PM 2.5 Rule and Prescribed Fire?

From Raffuse et al https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266286743_Development_of_Version_2_of_the_Wildland_Fire_Portion_of_the_National_Emissions_Inventory

For whatever reason, sometimes it happens that agencies don’t coordinate and run off in many directions self-aggrandizing and extending their own power and/or asking for duplicate kinds of funding.  And sometimes the White House tells departments to do things that may be in conflict with Congressional intent (e.g. mature and old growth initiative).  But for something as important and expensive as the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, would it be so hard to have someone review potential rules for consistency? Hopefully, the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission will be able to nip these things in an earlier stage of the bud. But think about it.. if it has to get to the OIRA stage before someone notices these kinds of issues…something is broken in Federal Agency Coordination World.

I received the below information third or fourth hand, so I don’t know what the originating organization was, although I think the letter is well written. So kudos to whomever at whatever organization. I also don’t know what the current status is, so that’s why I’m posting this. Hopefully someone out there will know.

We understand that EPA is considering a reduction in the primary annual average PM 2.5 NAAQS from 12 ug/m 3 to between 8 ug/m 3 and 10 ug/m. 3 If such a standard is implemented without consideration for beneficial fire, it would significantly limit the number of burn windows available to public, private, and tribal land managers to implement beneficial fire across the United States. Preliminary research indicates that some areas would see a reduction in available burn days of 70-80 percent, at a time when relevant experts agree that more burn days are needed to implement beneficial fire at a meaningful pace and scale.

A key purpose of OIRA review is to ensure that EPA’s proposed rule does not conflict with the policies or actions taken or planned by another agency or the Biden Administration. (Sharon’s bold)

However, adoption of the lower PM 2.5 NAAQS without consideration for beneficial fire would result in a significant conflict. For example, the U.S. Forest Service recently issued its Wildfire Crisis Strategy 1 , which calls for “dramatically increasing fuels and forest health treatments [including beneficial fire] by up to four times current treatment levels in the West.” The Department of the Interior likewise articulated the need to increase the pace and scale of priority fuel management treatments, including beneficial fire. 2 The Biden Administration has assembled the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to develop strategies to better prevent and manage wildfires, including through expanded beneficial fire use. 3 All of these targets are supported by significantly increased funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act for beneficial fire activities. Federal agencies, however, will not be able to spend these dollars and implement their planned actions if the PM 2.5 NAAQS is modified without consideration for beneficial fire.

We understand that the EPA may believe that PM 2.5 emissions from beneficial fire can be adequately addressed under the Exceptional Events Rule. Indeed, EPA engaged in rulemaking in 2016 that codified the conditions under which prescribed fires could qualify as exceptional events. 4 However, the regulatory process developed in the 2016 rulemaking is not sufficient to enable the amount of beneficial fire experts say is necessary to reduce wildfire emissions.

Exceptional Events filings are technically demanding and expensive. As such, local air regulators simply declare burn bans or deny smoke management permit requests on days where beneficial fire smoke may lead to NAAQS exceedances, rather than agree to pursue an arduous Exceptional Events filing. Indeed, we are not aware of any Exceptional Events filings for prescribed fires since the rule was promulgated. If the EPA does reduce the PM 2.5 NAAQS, additional regulatory solutions—either within the Exceptional Events rule or elsewhere in the CAA regulations—are necessary to ensure that land owners and managers can implement needed beneficial fire projects. We urge OIRA to ensure that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is sufficiently expansive to allow development of these solutions in tandem with any revised PM 2.5 NAAQS.

We are strongly supportive of the EPA’s intent to reduce PM 2.5 emissions. Additional regulation of stationary sources, tailpipe emissions, and similar anthropogenic sources are clearly warranted to protect public health. However, as the EPA acknowledges, the single biggest threat to public health from PM 2.5 emissions is wildfire smoke, which is currently unregulated. 5 If we are serious about protecting public health, EPA’s regulations must enable significantly greater use of use of beneficial fire, rather than continuing to treat it like other forms of pollution. Modifying the PM 2.5 NAAQS without addressing the burden of such regulation on beneficial fire use will nearly eliminate our best tool to tackle wildfire emissions.

BTW, if you’re interested, the American Lung Association funded this 2022 report called  “Can Prescribed Fires Mitigate Health Harms?” which seems to be a good roundup of current information.


8 thoughts on “Who Knows More About… the EPA’s Proposed PM 2.5 Rule and Prescribed Fire?”

  1. I can help with that 🙂

    The letter originated as a result of discussions in California and how EPA’s rule would affect the ability to use prescribed fire as a tool there. We then shared the letter with practitioners and other advocates nationally.

    EPA released its rule for comment on January 27. More information is available here: https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/national-ambient-air-quality-standards-naaqs-pm

    I understand that USDA was likewise caught unaware by EPA’s rulemaking, and that there is essentially no communication between the two agencies; I suspect DOI is also surprised.

  2. 70 – 80% reduction in prescribed fire? That’ll play well; I was absolutely livid yesterday at seeing Region 2 USFS justifying paying $2,300/ acre for fuels reduction through stewardships and Rx burns! We caught all kinds of hell for paying $500/acre in White Mountain Stewardship, in Arizona. 4-FRI must be in the $2,000 – $3,000 range now?

    I believe in treating fuels mechanically, then reinitiating fire across the landscape to meet a multitude of objectives s, but sheesh, what’s going to happen when the tap dries up….. And, shouldn’t we care?

  3. No, not Western Environmental Law Center, but rather Sara Clarke with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP – we just signed on 🙂

  4. Cool graphics.

    It seems to me that prescribed burning as a source of PM 2.5 is probably unique in that it should result in net reduction of such emissions. Does that figure into the calculations and limits in some way?

  5. Thanks for posting this, and especially the link to the American Lung Association report rounding up the latest on Rx vs. wildfire. Here in the SE, its Rx burn season, and most of the ones affecting my city of Tallahassee are on State and Private lands. Although they all have to get burn permits through the State, there isn’t much or any coordination among the entities, and when I last spoke with the person giving the permits, local health impacts are not a factor–its all based on weather. I was encouraging them to at least give a head’s up to local residents, as the Forest Service does, but that would be too difficult I suppose. I shared the report to a local Facebook page that was set up by concerned citizens to provide air quality warnings. I emphasize Good Fires, but everyone has to work together for public support.


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