The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday the agency will maintain an air quality standard governing soot pollution for five years rather than tighten it as agency scientists had recommended, a move that will harm low-income communities that tend to be most exposed to the pollutant.The agency is required to review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards regulation, which sets limits on the concentrations of pollutants like soot from coal-fired power plants and vehicle tailpipes every five years and has tended to tighten them regularly after scientific review.At a news briefing alongside Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia, a coal-producing state, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency is preserving the current soot pollution standard of 12 millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air.He said on a press call Monday that particulate matter concentrations have decreased across the country over the last few years and said the agency conducted the review process “earlier than initially anticipated.”Since the EPA’s last review of particulate matter, new scientific research shows that even levels below the current standards cause serious health impacts.Wheeler said the new research that has emerged about the health impacts of particulate matter did not “come out in time for this five-year review process.”New research also shows a link between COVID-19 mortality and exposure to particulate matter, said several state attorneys general, including Xavier Becerra of California, now a nominee to be president-elect Joe Biden’s health secretary.”On its way out the door, the Trump administration has refused to strengthen standards regulating particulate matter pollution, despite a plethora of evidence showing its damaging effects on public health, particularly when coupled with a deadly respiratory pandemic,” Becerra said.EPA scientists had recommended cutting the standard to 8 millionths of a gram.The decision is one of several at the EPA that the outgoing Republican Trump administration is rushing to finalize ahead of Democratic Biden’s January 20 inauguration, including one setting new limits on ozone, another limiting the kinds of scientific data that can be used in policymaking and another making it harder to justify new pollution regulations.Environmental groups had wanted the EPA to toughen the soot standards to protect public health.Al Armendariz, director of federal campaigns at the Sierra Club and a former EPA regional administrator, said low-income, minority communities would “bear the brunt” of the decision. But he said he expects the incoming Biden administration to set the appropriate standard.West Virginia Senior Deputy Attorney General Douglas Buffington said the announcement “represents a big win for West Virginia coal” because if the standard had been tightened, “it could have been a huge blow to the coal industry.”

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