Vermont Joins Lawsuit Against EPA Over Soot Standards | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Joins Lawsuit Against EPA Over Soot Standards 

Published February 13, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.

Reuters is reporting that Vermont is among 11 states that are suing the Environmental Protection Agency over soot pollution. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan on Friday, aims to force the EPA to review its clean air standards. 

If the phrase "soot pollution" brings to mind images of 19th-century street urchins and old-school industrial development — no? just me? — think again. It's a serious issue. Soot and other fine particulates come from everything from power plants to diesel-burning vehicles to wood-burning stoves, and soot is a culprit in respiratory illnesses, asthma and heart disease. 

Joining Vermont in the lawsuit are some heavy hitters, including New York and California. New York is among those states with the largest number of deaths related to particulate pollution, and the environmental group Environment California ranks their state as having the worst rate of soot pollution in the country.  

So, what gives? Why is Vermont worried about soot pollution? 

Well, Vermont has its own set of air quality concerns worth remembering, says Dick Valentinetti, the director of the air quality program at the Agency of Natural Resources. The state is downwind from some major polluters, especially power plants in the midwest. (I heard the same thing last week when reporting on natural gas expansion in Vermont.) Coal burning plants send sulphur dioxide and oxides from nitrogen our way. Once here, they transform into a very fine particulate, and cause problems with visibility.

"Anytime you go out and take a beautiful picture of a brilliant sunset, a lot of that is a function of fine particulate," says Valentinetti. 

Another source of soot and fine particulates that hits closer to home — burning wood for fuel.

"We have come close to the health standards," Valentinetti says. ANR has a program in place to email those with respiratory illnesses when air quality gets especially bad. Rutland has experienced problems before, he says, and forest fires in Quebec a few years back nudged air pollution up near the standards. 

The EPA last reviewed its current standards in 2006, and said in a statement picked up by the New York Times that the agency is "continuing to work" on proposing new benchmarks. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review its standards every five years, and the agency missed that deadline in October. Valentinetti says that the periodic review is important because there's always new research about the health effects and appropriate standards, and the last time the EPA reviewed them, they didn't change much. When the EPA does get around to setting new benchmarks, Valentinetti says they should be taken with a grain of salt. The EPA might be obligated to come up with a number, he says, but then again...

"For both ozone and fine particulate, there really is no safe level," Valentinetti says. "Anything we can do to reduce these two pollutants is beneficial to the health of the population."

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Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg was a Seven Days staff writer from 2012 through 2015. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine.

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