WaPo on EPA and PM 2.5: Watch Out for More Disciplinary Encroachment


(From Aguilara et at. 2021 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21708-0 open source)


The WaPo had an interesting article last week on PM2.5 regulations. I wouldn’t be following this if it weren’t for the wildfire/prescribed fire angle on PM 2.5.   There seems to be a discussion that since wildfires and prescribed burning emit particulates, that therefore industrial sources should reduce even more. Then there are studies that say different PM2.5 sources can have different health effects, with wildfire particulates being more harmful. From that study:

PM2.5 in the United States has decreased in past decades due to environmental regulations5,8, with the exception of wildfire-prone areas5. Wildfire PM2.5 in the US is projected to increase with climate change along with the associated burden on human health9. Levels of wildfire PM2.5 can greatly exceed those of ambient PM2.5, spiking episodically within a short period of time (e.g., hours after the onset of a wildfire),

It also seems to me that wildfire and prescribed fire are different than industrial, as exposure is more due to kinds of work than to where a person lives. It is true that industries tend to be in poorer areas. But maybe the solution is to focus on those industries, rather than a broad brush across all sources. Note how quickly the world as we might see it, complex and full of different particles and different effects, becomes framed as good guys versus bad guys. And the paradox that “bad guy” industries also provide living-wage jobs for lower-income people can be transformed into a crude political calculus.  This may give EPA even more authority over wildfire and prescribed fire than it has with fire retardant permitting.  In fact, wildfire and prescribed fire may become wholly owned subsidiaries of EPA decisionmakers.  As would all areas transferred, by a stroke of the regulation pen, into non-attainment.  I see this quite a bit, what we might think are complex issues are reframed as simple  (the less PM 2.5 the better, regardless of other needs and concerns) and then translated into good guys and bad guys.

So look how the reporter frames the issue:

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.

So it’s industry folks (bad) vs. the EPA (good):

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.


EPA lawyers have said in court filings that the soot rule could be finalized by the end of this month. As soon as next week, the agencyis 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 on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.


We are reassured by EPA that there are no trade-offs.  Maybe EPA needs more economists? As Thomas Sowell said, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” Anyway, our own forest folks show up in this article.

A limit of 9 micrograms could sharply increase the number of counties that are in violation of 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 5 to 6 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?”

So the Post analyzes it from a political point of view… is this the time to stop building manufacturing in the red areas?

“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?”


“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.”

It’s great to be against industrial pollution. It’s great to be in public health.  But this is kind of a weird conflation (and the expert neither an expert in climate nor wildfires) kind of statement, unless the point is to export 2.5-emitting manufacturing to countries likely to be poorer (with lower wages) where they would be emitting the same or more greenhouse gases.

PM 2.5 and Prescribed Fire: Great Article from KQED!

Some people might be getting tired of the PM 2.5 topic… and plus with current fire retardant issue,  the idea that EPA – the agency that, as we have seen, can’t keep track of the money it’s spending, uses un-ground-truthed wildfire risk models developed by an NGO without any transparent government oversight..  doesn’t have enough employees to do what they are already tasked with.. and doesn’t play well with land management agencies. per GAO. And then there’s the perceived need to blame neighboring states for  miniscule amounts of ozone pollution in Denver.

Nevertheless, I thought that this was a super article by reporter Danielle Venton of KQED.  It is long and comprehensive, as befits a piece on such a complicated subject.   I like the way she structured it.

1. Updating the standard is good, say public health, air regulators and the EJ community.  According to a quoted source, it saves lives, especially those of communities of color.

According to the story, it’s particularly a problem om Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.  As a former resident of Southern California, home of all income levels and races, I think it might be better to target specific producers of whatever pollutants are leading to increased asthma.

“Everyone knows a parent who has brought their baby, or their 2-year-old, into the ER because they couldn’t breathe. You know, the baby’s turning blue,” Amsalem said. “It’s a story you hear across generations.”

If you go to the linked article here, you find about the San Joaquin Valley

Because the region is surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges, pollutants get trapped in the valley. Wildfires — such as the blazes that have dirtied the valley’s air this summer — exacerbate asthma symptoms and send more kids to the emergency room.

Wildfires likely contributed to the high rate of childhood ER visits for asthma in Del Norte County in 2016 — 121 visits per 10,000 children — which represents an increase of more than 40 percent from the previous year. Del Norte, which sits along the Oregon border, had the fifth-highest rate in the state in 2016.

And if we look at the map, Imperial County has the problem of dust from the Salton Sea drying up.  I’m not sure that wildfires or the Salton Sea will be helped by a new PM2.5 regulation.

If you go to this story you can click on the counties.

2. Wildfires are bad for PM 2.5

It still amazes me that people never noticed this until wildfires were blamed on climate change. All those discussions in California about why wildfires are good.. and this didn’t come up until the last few years.

Today, with emissions from the worst pollutants down by more than 70% (PDF), the EPA estimates the Clean Air Act saves 230,000 lives annually and hundreds of thousands more from asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks. Public health experts estimate the benefits of all these lives saved and hospital visits avoided into the many trillions of dollars.

Wildfires are now a major producer of both carbon emissions and tiny specks of sooty pollutants known as PM 2.5. A 2022 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that wildfire pollution was beginning to reverse decades of clean air gains. (Researchers at Stanford in 2020 had similar findings [PDF].)


The EPA estimates a third of the PM 2.5 we breathe in this country is from wildfires. For those in the West during wildfire season, it can be 90%.

And if wildfire trends continue and worsen, as climate models suggest they will, then we’ve seen nothing yet.

2. But to reduce wildfire smoke, we need to have prescribed fire (or burn excess fuels in some kind of smoke free environment, which seems possible, but not at the scale we’re talking about). And here’s a process the EPA has:

However, EPA officials recognize that sometimes air districts are out of compliance through no fault of their own. In this case, they are allowed to file for an “exceptional event.” In this bureaucratic process, the “event” is linked to the cause of pollution going over the legal limit. It is meant for events that are unforeseeable and are unlikely to occur in the same location again, like a volcanic explosion. If the link can be made, then emissions from that event can be subtracted from the total, and the air district is no longer in trouble with the EPA.

It is a long, technically involved process. A California Air Resources Board (CARB) exceptional events filing (PDF) for ozone concentrations during the Northern California wildfires of 2020 runs 228 pages.

You’re kidding me.. California taxpayers paid for CARB employees to write about ozone from forest fires?  Isn’t there anyone who is interested in “useful and efficient” regulation rather than unclear and wasteful regulation?

The problem, as seen by many in the wildfire science community, is that while this process essentially means air districts are not on the hook for wildfire smoke, they are on the hook for prescribed fire smoke. And prescribed fire — the most affordable, effective inoculation against future wildfires — has never been used as a basis for an exceptional event in California.


The EPA also seems aware of these concerns. In its proposed rule, it says it acknowledges stakeholder concerns about the importance of prescribed fire and intends to work with stakeholders to address these issues. It also says prescribed fires have the potential to qualify for exceptional events (PDF), which could encourage their continued and expanded use.

However, this has environmental lawyers very concerned. Sara Clark of the law firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger works with nonprofit organizations and supports prescribed fire and Indigenous cultural burners. She thinks the EPA’s reasoning as written might not hold up under a judge’s evaluation.

“[The EPA] does a lot of linguistic acrobatics to try and clarify how a prescribed fire is … not reasonably preventable or controllable. But it’s called a ‘controlled burn,’” said Clark. “I’m concerned about the legal underpinnings there.”

She also believes that the time and technical expertise needed to file for an exceptional event exemption would make air regulators wary of using it. Extensive documentation and analysis is needed to submit for an exceptional events determination from CARB or the EPA.

A recent Government Accountability Office report echoes these concerns. The report says the EPA could do a better job working with other agencies to reduce impacts from wildfires (PDF), including making it easier to conduct prescribed fires.

Stakeholders interviewed by the GAO said that state and local agencies aren’t likely to use the exceptional events provision for prescribed burns because “the agencies would not likely approve prescribed burns that could cause National Ambient Air Quality Standards exceedances in the first place.” And they said that “exceptional event demonstrations are technically complicated and resource intensive.”

Put another way, it’s more likely that prescribed burns would never happen if air regulators thought they might have to file for an exceptional event.

It is also legally uncharted, or nearly uncharted, territory. The EPA has received only one exceptional events demonstration for a prescribed burn (PDF) — too much ozone was associated with prescribed burns in the Flint Hills of Kansas in December 2012. But since then, no tribal, state or local agency has submitted an exceptional event demonstration for a prescribed burn, according to EPA officials.

The air districts (who need to keep EPA as much on their side as possible) aren’t worried

Neither Bay Area nor California air regulators seem to share the worries of the fire community that the EPA will hamper the increased use of prescribed fire, however.

She expressed hope that the rule’s implementation phase, which it now heads into, would be the time for nitty-gritty details to be worked out.

“Even though they can be expunged from the data, residents are still feeling [the effects of wildfire] very much so,” said Amsalem, of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. She hopes agencies will work out this issue, she said, “because we do need to do more prescribed burning to reduce the catastrophic events.”

It seems unlikely to me that an agency would willing give up fairly unconditional power over other agencies’ activities, but we’ll  see how this all works out.

Let’s Share CEQ Stories: and Why EPA May Not Give Retardant Regs the Attention They Deserve

Thanks to the many folks who have contacted me with their own concerns and observations about how the CEQ-Agency decision process is working. I had no idea that the concern was as widespread- and in areas I didn’t expect. So thank you all for reaching out!

My own CEQ Stories: Please Add Yours..

For me, I had expectations for the role of CEQ based on my own experiences. Absolutely each Admin can run things the way they want. Still, as it turns out, there is a vast body of people who work in and with government- what we might call Faithful Denizens of the Swamp- with many familial, friend and other connections who communicate with each other across party and other lines. I too was a Swamp Denizen and proud of the work I did as a career civil servant- trying to keep politicals from doing questionable things- and finding good ideas and floating them when different parties come into power. I I put the word faithful because most of us are faithful to values beyond a political party.. like good government, whatever that it. IMHO good government must be measured by trust, accountability, and the real-world effects on citizens (not hot air). As we used to say, the occupational disorder of DC is believing your own hype.

I have had three experiences of working directly with CEQ.
One was when I worked with Dan Magraw of EPA (assigned to CEQ) on regulation of genetically engineered organisms during the Clinton Administration. I was working at the Office of Science and Technology and the project was joint with CEQ. Dan and I were co-leads.
The second was working on the Limited Timber Harvest Categorical Exclusion during the Bush Administration (as the FS NEPA person). The third was as the FS NEPA person on the interagency NEPA group, but I’ve told that story before.

I was chuckling thinking that when I worked at OSTP (the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, like CEQ, part of the White House, but not what you think of exactly as “the White House”) the 2001 Planning Rule came through to be cleared. I raised the issue with OMB as part of the clearance process that the costs might be.. well.. underestimated. I got one of the OMB staffers interested in that, until that was shut down by our then-undersecretary (if he needed additional clout to do this, I have no idea). The story goes the Undersec complained to my FS boss at the time (Bill Sommers) who told him “what did you expect when you sent her over there?”

When we finished our interagency report on GE organism regulation, our bosses presented it to George Frampton, the CEQ Chair, with us in the room. He said basically.. no. So I think the higher ups and others had a discussion with him prior to the meeting, and that was definitely a joint Administration decision. Somehow biotech companies had the ear of the powers that were.

When I worked on Limited Timber Harvest, CEQ folks raised lots of questions. Patiently Pam Gardiner and I would answer questions,  and this back and forth went on for months. At one point Pam and I went to a meeting with Mark Rey, our Undersecretary at the time, and as I recall, Jim Connaughton, the CEQ chair dropped in to say to the CEQ staff person “enough is enough” and that was that. Again, I don’t know if Mark, the Sec, Jim, and others had had some prior convo.

I know other readers have had their own experiences. Again, any Admin can organize the way it wants to. However, if one chooses to operate differently, it will raise eyebrows among those who are used to working within the system. And my experiences are old now, but my still-friends in the Faithful Denizens of the Swamp who have emailed and called me are concerned about this new role. At the same time, a big change since the old days  is where exactly climate concerns are interspersed in all this -who hold what “climate” cards, where and how is the climate game played exactly?

Why Not Give More Work to EPA?

Yes, let’s give those poor feds another task.. rulemaking for fire retardant to the EPA! Why not? This is not negative about EPA, but they seem to already have too much to do.

First,  they’re 20K people down and say that they can’t do what’s in the IRA and BIL … see Grist story here..

Today, the workforce is around the size that it was under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The AFGE has said that the agency will need 20,000 full-time staff, a 40 percent increase, to carry out the programs it has been tasked with.

Nicole Cantello, who practiced as an EPA attorney for three decades before joining AFGE Council 238 full time in 2020, told Grist that the issue is not only with hiring, but also with retention. A dearth of promotional opportunities and limited work-from-home options have caused retirement-age employees to depart early. Roughly 20 percent of the EPA’s staff have been at the agency for 30 years or more and could elect to retire soon.


For members of AFGE, the staffing shortages are both personal and existential. A failure to address them could have repercussions for generations to come.

“Our mission has grown enormously, and climate challenges continue to escalate, but EPA’s inability to hire and retain staff has created a crisis,” said AFGE Council 238 President Marie Powell Owens in a statement. “We need to raise pay and restore career ladders now. The future of the EPA and our planet are at stake.”

The 2023 TSW Hyperbole Award may well go to Ms. Owens.

It’s also just too… hard… to keep track of all that money. Check out this non-paywalled story from Bloomberg Law. Et tu, Congresswoman DeGette?

The EPA’s inspector general raised concerns to House lawmakers Wednesday that his office can’t adequately track the tens of billions of dollars flowing into the agency from the infrastructure and climate laws under its current funding.

The comments from Sean O’Donnell and two other agency inspectors general come as some congressional Republicans’ concerns that the Biden administration is frittering away taxpayer dollars and increasing the national debt.

“Over the past two years, your federal government has been spending taxpayers’ dollars like it was Monopoly money,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

But Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), the panel’s top Democrat, countered that funding from the infrastructure and climate bills is crucial to protect the environment and grow the economy. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said that, despite the financial risks of pushing billions of dollars out the door quickly, the risk of doing nothing is unacceptable.

Broadly, O’Donnell and the other inspectors general pointed to shortcomings in their offices’ ability to oversee government spending. O’Donnell said he wasn’t asking Congress for new money, but “to actually use the money that’s already been given to pay for that independent audit.”

It’s kind of sad to me, as a former Faithful Swamp Denizen,when oversight is seen (by some partisans) to be a partisan issue. Is the future of the planet at stake if billions don’t go out the door fast enough? I can sympathize with those who might wonder (given the non-ground-truthed maps) whether there might be some kind of well- directed- funding in all this? My view.. if people are not trusting, don’t call them names (tinfoil hatted and all that).. become more trustworthy.

EPA EJ Office has cash, staff but not boss.. (E&E News, 3/27/23)

And finally, GAO points out that EPA has not been playing well with land management agencies as reported here earlier.

What could possibly go wrong assigning a new retardant rule to EPA?

Why 1%? EPA Blames Utah and Wyoming for Denver’s Ozone Pollution

Here’s a Colorado Sun story..

This is about non-wildfire air pollution (ozone), but to my mind doesn’t make a strong case for EPA regs making sense. And of course, EPA uses maps with un-groundtruthed wildfire risks directly from an outside group, so there’s that, and their lack of coordination with other federal agencies on wildfire smoke… I’m not picking on them as an agency, but like the FS and BLM I’m sure there are things they are doing well and others not so well.

The EPA’s justification for the new good neighbor rulings, published in the Federal Register, says the agency’s well-established monitoring methods show Utah contributing more than the 1% threshold of regulated substances to other states. “Its highest-level contribution is 1.29 parts per billion to Douglas County, Colorado,” the EPA said.

That number appears small, but the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the Regional Air Quality Council spend countless hours discussing strategies and policies to potentially shave a part or two per billion off summer ozone levels in the Front Range nonattainment area. Readings in recent summers have spiked above 80 ppb at some monitors.

At first, when I read this article, I was curious about the justification for 1%. It seems fairly, well, minimal.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear Utah’s side of the story because.. they are in litigation.
Colorado hasn’t joined in on the litigation despite pressure from environmental groups to support EPA (in blaming other states for our Colorado-generated problems?).

From a CPR story (that also talks about the relationship between ozone and wildfire smoke):

In 2014, Flocke and his NCAR colleague Gabriele Pfister conducted a state-commissioned aerial survey to track the ozone sources along the Front Range. The research found that the region has background ozone levels of about 40 to 50 parts per billion, which is short of the current federal health standard of 70 parts per billion.

Local emissions of air pollutants pushed air quality to unsafe levels. On days when ozone levels exceeded federal health standards, traffic and oil and gas combined are responsible for more than two-thirds of ozone production along the Front Range.

Colorado’s ozone landscape has likely changed in the seven years since the survey. Energy companies have installed more pipelines, cutting down on total emissions from oil and gas production. Over the same period, more people have arrived in Colorado and brought their cars with them. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reduction in Front Range traffic in the spring and summer of 2020, Pfister said state data show it has rebounded to record levels in Denver.

“There are basically just more cars on the road,” Pfister said.

When I first read the Colorado Sun story, I was puzzled by the mechanics of how pollution from Utah could fly over the western part of the state and lodge in Douglas County. A wise reporter friend suggested that perhaps Douglas County is in non-attainment, so the percentage is equally low in other counties, bu it doesn’t matter for them. This would make sense. I reached out to the reporter for the more information and name of his EPA contact but haven’t heard back.

Anyway, it seems like ozone is fundamentally an urban problem on the Front Range.. so why go after rural folks in Utah?

As it turns out, this came up last year in Wyoming, via the Cowboy State Daily.

The EPA, in an April 6 report, said Wyoming contributes up to 0.8 parts per billion to the Denver-Chatfield area “smog” — just more than 1%.

As a result, the agency wants to enact its “Good Neighbor” mandates that would allow it to place tougher greenhouse gas restrictions on Wyoming and several other states which contribute 1% or more to ozone pollution in “downwind” states.

The EPA early this month deemed the Denver-Chatfield area a “severe” violator of federal ozone, or smog, standards – a downgrade from its prior status of “serious” violation.


Gov. Mark Gordon in a March statement called the “Good Neighbor” mandate an “attack on state-led approaches” moving “more authority away from the people to Washington, DC.”

Gordon also said the plan targets Wyoming and other Western energy-producing states, and seeks to penalize their energy industries.

“It will harm states like Wyoming who meet ozone standards and benefit more populous states that use our energy but do not meet their own standards,” Gordon continued. “EPA’s proposal does not ‘follow the science’ or the law and will unjustly discriminate against Wyoming industries.”

The Cowboy Daily also raises the question about California..

In the same projection, California was expected nearly to double Wyoming’s chemical share of Colorado’s smog by contributing about 3 parts per billion to Colorado.

California also is expected to export about 40 times Wyoming’s ozone-chemical output nationwide, with 34 ppb total ozone-chemicals export.

And then there is this interesting critique of the EPA modeling from a Colorado engineer (yes, ozone is measured but of course, contributions are modelled), also from the Cowboy State Daily.

This is just one piece of the critique:

“EPA states that the average difference between the projected values and the actual values is 7.79 ppb (parts per billion of ozone-contributing chemicals),” reads Strobel’s letter to the governor.

Wyoming’s likely inclusion in the “Good Neighbor” restrictions is due to its projected 0.81 ppb contribution to Colorado’s total ground ozone, which is projected to be 71.7 ppb in 2023.
“If the model cannot project values with any more accuracy than 7.79 ppb for Chatfield,” wrote Strobel, “it is absurd for EPA to suggest that they can project that 0.81 ppb will come from Wyoming.”
If Wyoming’s projected contribution had been below 0.7 ppb, the state would not fall under the “Good Neighbor” restrictions.
“With such poor accuracy,” continued Strobel, “it is also absurd for EPA to claim that they can distinguish between 0.81 ppb and the 0.7 ppb threshold for requiring action.”

If you’re curious, you might wonder why Colorado isn’t a bad neighbor to Kansas.. it seems probably as there are no large urban areas in non-attainment.

It’s perfectly normal for federal agencies to find rationales to expand their power over states. But this one seems a little arbitrary and dare I say, capricious. A person could even wonder whether the political inclinations of the “bad neighbor” states have been somehow factored in..