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Fine Particle Pollution: Unevenly Distributed, Driven by Heavy Traffic, and Supercharged by E-commerce

On February 7, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized new and stronger air quality standards for fine particle pollution (commonly known as soot), a harmful pollutant and byproduct of burning coal, manufacturing, oil refining, and motor vehicles. Soot is one of the nation’s most dangerous air pollutants, and one of the most widespread, though it disproportionately impacts the health of structurally marginalized communities.

Multiple reports have found that people living within half a mile of warehouses have higher rates of asthma and heart attacks than residents in the area overall, increased risk of cancer, and nervous system effects. The new standard would reduce the annual health limit from 12 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 9.

This change is long overdue, as it represents the first update of soot limits in 12 years. It’s also extremely consequential: the EPA projects that the new limit will prevent “up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032. For every $1 spent from this action, there could be as much as $77 in human health benefits in 2032”, according to a recent press release from the agency. For those who like to tally the “costs and benefits,” according to agency officials, “every $1 spent from this action, there could be as much as $77 in human health benefits in 2032.”

Several jurisdictions that were compliant under the current limit will have to adjust to the new standard. Illustrative air quality data collected by the EPA between 2020 and 2022 shows the potential impact of the rule: Although final nonattainment determinations will be made using new measurements taken between 2022–2024, 118 counties in the United States currently fall outside the new 9 ug/m3 limit. In the following map, these counties are shown in blue (Figure 1). These potentially noncompliant counties cluster around large urban and metro areas, which are some of the most diverse and unequal areas in the country, both racially and economically.

Figure 1

Fine particle pollution stems from natural and human-made sources, including vehicles, industrial processes, and wildfires. Heavy-duty trucks and other diesel-burning vehicles represent a considerable portion of vehicle pollution in the United States and are a major source of soot. This markedly increases around areas that act as nodes in the distribution chains, such as storage facilities and warehouses (like those used by Amazon, Walmart, and other industries). The exponential growth of “e-commerce” in the past decade, combined with profound changes in shopping habits driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, has driven a massive proliferation of warehouses across the landscape.

To understand the scale of the problem, we retrieved information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the distribution of warehouses by county and singled out “General warehousing and storage,” the category that includes storage and distribution facilities used by Amazon and Walmart. The data shows that the 118 counties that would not meet the new standard are home to a total of 5,587 warehouses, with nearly half — 2,700 — in just 10 counties (Table 1). To be clear, warehouse-related traffic is not the only driver of soot pollution in these counties, but it is certainly an important one, especially given the growing trend in e-commerce.

Table 1: Top 10 counties, by number of warehouses, that would not meet the new soot limit

How does this connect to environmental justice? The location of warehouses is not random, nor are the locations of where people live and work. Corporations factor road and highway access, local zoning laws, and proximity to major regional markets into their considerations. These warehouses tend to be closer to low-wealth and nonwhite neighborhoods, subjecting them to increased exposure to soot and other harmful contaminants.

Extensive research has documented the spatial distribution of warehouses alongside the demographic and income makeup of communities nearby. In an authoritative white paper from April 2023, Environmental Defense Fund found that 15 million people live within a half mile of warehouses in 10 states, and “Black, Latino, Asian and American Indian people bear the brunt of risk from living in proximity to warehouses. In some states like Illinois, Massachusetts and Colorado, the concentration of Black and Latino residents around warehouses is double what would be expected, given the state population.” Similarly, based on multiple studies of large metropolitan areas in California, researchers Quan Yuan and Genevieve Giuliano found that the majority of warehouses in their study are located in non-white neighborhoods, especially medium-income neighborhoods.

Future steps and policy developments

Despite the new limit being an important change, air quality remains a challenging policy area in which further improvements must be made. These include boosting monitoring near major polluting infrastructure — like mega-warehouses and distribution centers — and increasing the number and functioning of monitoring stations. Currently, EPA only monitors pollution in approximately 1,000 out of the roughly 3,000 U.S. counties. To put it another way: About 120 million Americans live in counties that have no EPA pollution monitors at all for small particle pollution, according to agency data.

But county-level data can only get us so far, concealing much-needed nuance at the smaller scale. Another important area for improvement is the ability to measure block-to-block variability in air quality. Fortunately, along with strengthening the primary annual soot standard, EPA is modifying the air quality monitoring network design criteria to include considerations of proximity of populations at increased risk of soot-related health effects to sources of air pollution. These important steps will advance environmental justice by ensuring that contextualized and granular data collection in overburdened areas will inform future policy decisions.

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Federico Holm | February 22, 2024

Fine Particle Pollution: Unevenly Distributed, Driven by Heavy Traffic, and Supercharged by E-commerce

On February 7, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized new and stronger air quality standards for fine particle pollution (commonly known as soot), a harmful pollutant and byproduct of burning coal, manufacturing, oil refining, and motor vehicles. Soot is one of the nation’s most dangerous air pollutants, and one of the most widespread, though it disproportionately impacts the health of structurally marginalized communities. Multiple reports have found that people living within half a mile of warehouses have higher rates of asthma and heart attacks than residents in the area overall, increased risk of cancer, and nervous system effects.

Cathy A. Buckley, Sophie Loeb | February 15, 2024

North Carolina Utilities Commission Should Ensure Public Participation on Proposed New Methane Gas Plants

As North Carolinians continue to grapple with rolling blackouts and rising energy bills, yet another pending environmental catastrophe is developing in our backyards. Duke Energy, our state’s monopoly utility provider, has submitted filings for two new methane gas power plants — one at the current Roxboro coal plant in Person County and another at the Marshall plant on Lake Norman.

air pollution

Daniel Farber | February 13, 2024

The New Particulate Standard and the Courts

EPA has just issued a rule tightening the air quality standard for PM2.5 — the tiny particles most dangerous to health — from an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter down to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. EPA estimates that, by the time the rule goes into effect in 2032, it will avoid 4,500 premature deaths, 800,000 asthma attacks, and 290,000 lost workdays. Most likely, by the time this post goes up, someone will have filed a lawsuit to overturn the EPA rule. What legal arguments will challengers raise, and what are their chances of winning? Let’s consider the possible challenges one by one.

Daniel Farber | February 8, 2024

The Long Life and Sudden Demise of Federal Wetlands Protection

In 2023, the Supreme Court ended 50 years of broad federal protection of wetlands in Sackett v. United States. It is only when you look back at the history of federal wetlands regulation that you realize just how radical and destructive this decision was.

Daniel Farber | February 2, 2024

Interstate Pollution and the Supreme Court’s ‘Shadow Docket’

Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument about whether to stay a plan issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit upwind states from creating ozone pollution that impacts other states. As I wrote before the Court decided to hear the arguments, the issues here seem less than earthshaking, and for that matter, less than urgent. It was puzzling to me why after many weeks, the Court was still sitting on the “emergency” requests of the upwind states to be rescued from the EPA plan. Given that the Court seems to think the issues are important enough to justify oral argument, however, it’s worth examining what seems to be bothering the Court about implementing the EPA plan.

Richard Pierce, Jr. | February 1, 2024

Should Environmental Justice Concerns Stop at the Border?

I find the Center for Progressive Reform’s pursuit of environmental justice inherently appealing, but this work raises provocative questions: Should U.S.-focused groups like the Center and policymakers pursue an environmental justice mission that does not account for potentially negative trade-offs in developing countries? Or, are there ways to account for those trade-offs to ensure environmental justice work and efforts to address climate change benefit people across the globe?

James Goodwin, Will Dobbs-Allsopp | January 31, 2024

New Report: A Forgotten EPA Obligation Would Help Address Racial Health Disparities, Strengthen the Economy, and Tackle the Climate Crisis

What if we told you that every day, tens of millions of Americans are exposed to something that contributes to neurological disease, depression, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke? What if we also told you that in causing these health harms, it was disproportionately affecting low-wealth communities and communities of color? What is this dangerous “something”? It’s excessive noise. And, as it happens, more than 50 years ago, Congress recognized the seriousness of the harms that excessive noise causes and, as a result, passed a law directing the EPA to take aggressive action against it.

Robin Kundis Craig | January 11, 2024

A Supreme Court Ruling on Fishing for Herring could Sharply Curb Federal Regulatory Power

Fisheries regulation might seem to be unusual grounds for the U.S. Supreme Court to shift power away from federal agencies. But that is what the court seems poised to do in the combined cases of Loper Bright Enterprises vs. Raimondo and Relentless Inc. vs. Department of Commerce.

Daniel Farber | January 10, 2024

The Bumper Crop of New State Climate Policies Since July — Part II

State climate policy is a big deal. State governments began cutting emissions at a time when the federal government was essentially doing nothing about climate change. Since then, more states have become involved. Part II of this post covers state climate action from New Jersey to Washington State during the second half of 2023, as well as multi-state efforts.