After years of pressure from environmentalists, the State of New York has moved to regulate fine particulate matter (PM), tiny droplets of air pollution that spew from trucks, buses and power plants. Last month, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) introduced a draft plan that would require anyone seeking to build new pollution-belching facilities to assess—and in some cases, lower—PM emissions.
“This is a remarkable step forward,” said E. Gail Suchman, senior environmental counsel with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who has litigated the matter in court. “The state has ignored [particulate matter] and pretended that it didn’t exist for years.”
Unfortunately, she says, the good news ends there. A coalition of environmental groups is now drafting a letter to the state outlining its concerns. Chief among them that the DEC plans to judge new facilities solely on their own projected emissions, regardless of existing pollution around the site. That’s particularly problematic for New York City, where numerous monitoring sites already show concentrations of particulate matter exceeding federal Environmental Protection Agency safety standards.
“We know what the levels are,” said Peter Iwanowicz, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of New York. “We know some of the major contributors and how to reduce them. We don’t need to assess it and study it.”
The EPA first regulated coarse PM in the 1970s, when it was found to cause respiratory disease. But later research revealed that particles as small as 2.5 microns—about 1/30th the diameter of a human hair—lodge deeper into lungs and can be even more harmful. Several studies have linked PM 2.5 to elevated rates of asthma, cardiovascular problems, and premature death, especially in children and the elderly.
That comes as no surprise to Elizabeth Yeampierre. Her group, UPROSE, has fought to keep new power plants from clustering in Sunset Park, where asthma rates are staggering. “All of the power plants in the city, all the proposals in the past few years, have been in communities of color,” she says. “The issue of environmental justice is as fundamental as saying we have a right to breathe.”
In July 1997, the EPA seemed to affirm that right when it set new limits on PM 2.5. But a lawsuit filed by the American Trucking Association and other industry groups threatened to delay those rules indefinitely. In the interim, the state opted to set its own guidelines. “Governor Pataki has made New York a national leader in reducing pollution,” the DEC crowed in a May 14 press release.
Katherine Kennedy, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, isn’t convinced. She fears the level of anticipated particulate matter necessary to trigger an environmental review is too high and could allow hazardous projects to slip through: A project would have to emit over 15 tons of PM per year and increase the overall concentration in the air by at least 2 percent. “The DEC is trying to come up with a policy that has environmental benefit but still allows projects to go forward,” she says. “Our goal is to convince them that they need to do more.”