The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued tougher air-quality standards for soot and other fine particles, setting the annual health standard at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with the current standard of 15 micrograms per cu m.

EPA officials say the health benefits of the final regulation, announced on Dec. 14, include thousands of lives saved and will far outweigh the costs. In a call with reporters, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, said the benefits could range from $4 billion to $9 billion per year and estimated annual implementation costs of $53 million to $350 million. McCarthy said the upper ranges of the costs reflect comments from industry groups that had contended that as particulate matter reductions go down, the costs associated per ton may go up.

Industry groups had sought to keep the current standard in place. Organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said the current benchmark would continue to drive down pollution but at a manageable cost.

Jay Timmons, NAM president and CEO, said that, under the newly issued EPA rule, “essentially, existing facilities will have to be shuttered for new facilities to be built” in areas deemed to be out of attainment.

Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, says, "Normally, a new standard means a rash of new regulations, but EPA claims that virtually every area of the country will meet the new standard without the need for new regulatory requirements. If so, then maybe the new standard won’t cause the type of economic disruption that we’ve seen in the past. In recent years, a new air-quality standard like this one has caused big delays for companies trying to build new plants or expand existing operations.  I think a lot of people are holding their breath and hoping that we won’t see the same thing this time around.”

Although the EPA expects about 19 U.S. counties to be pushed into non-attainment in the short term, officials said other Clean Air Act regulations already on the books will help those localities reduce pollution levels by 2020. As a result, EPA projects that about 99% of U.S. counties will be able to meet the revised particulate standard without any additional action.

McCarthy added that about seven counties, all in California, might need to consider additional actions to reduce fine-particle pollution to meet the new standards by 2020. She said the EPA would work with those counties, as well as those put into non-attainment in the short term, to help them meet the standard by 2020.

Environmental groups were pleased with the EPA’s announcement. Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said, “We’re proud that EPA has finalized this new clean-air standard in the face of intense opposition from corporate polluters and their allies." He added, "Because of the Obama administration’s updated standard ... thousands of Americans won’t have to face the dangerous health impacts of soot pollution from dirty sources like powerplants and diesel trucks.”

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review its air-quality standards every five years to determine whether the standards should be revised. A federal court required the EPA to issue a final particulate standard by Dec. 14 because the agency did not meet its five-year legal deadline for reviewing the standards.