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New federal soot pollution rule could bring cleaner air to Wisconsin

an empty plaground on a sunny, cloudy day. plumes of emissions rise in the background from a nearby coal plant
Susan Bence
A playground north of the Oak Creek Power Plant.

The federal government is cracking down on air pollution in cities like Milwaukee. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened restrictions on soot.

“The science is clear,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan in a briefing. “Soot pollution is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution and is linked to a range of serious and potentially deadly illnesses, including asthma and heart attacks.”

The particle pollution comes from sources like coal-fired power plants, agriculture, highway traffic and wildfires.

Soot is also known as PM2.5 — short for particulate matter that measures just 2.5 microns across. That’s 30 times smaller than a human hair: Tiny enough to burrow deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

That exposure is linked to health problems like lung and heart disease, respiratory issues and diabetes. Children, the elderly, pregnant people and those with chronic illnesses are more vulnerable to exposure.

The revised rule drops the annual limit from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 9 micrograms. It might not sound like much, but studies show no level of exposure to the fine particle pollution is safe for humans. The World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines recommend an annual limit of 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

According to EPA data, two Wisconsin counties currently exceed the new limit: Milwaukee and Waukesha.

Regan touted the benefits of the new regulation, saying the action would prevent over 800,000 asthma cases, 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost work days in 2032, likely the earliest year that states would need to meet the standard. The environmental group Clean Wisconsin estimates the protections will prevent 40 premature deaths in the state each year.

A graphic shows the United States in light green. two counties in Wisconsin are dark green—milwaukee and waukesha
Most counties in the United States already meet the strengthened soot standard (light green). Dark green counties indicate those that do not mean the new annual standard, including Milwaukee and Waukesha counties in Wisconsin.

Industry groups like the Wisconsin Paper Council opposed the measure, saying it will hamper U.S. manufacturing. But with the air quality improvement measures already in place, the EPA estimates 99% of the nation’s counties — including Milwaukee and Waukesha — will be up to par, or in “attainment,” by the time that states need to comply.

Advocates celebrated the update, saying it’s an important move for environmental justice, which has been a major priority of the Biden administration.

Listen to an extended conversation with Lillian Jensen, a member of the group Healthy Climate Wisconsin.

“It’s a good initial first step that we’re seeing here,” said Milwaukee nurse educator Lillian Jensen, a member of the advocacy group Healthy Climate Wisconsin, which lobbied for an even lower limit. “I think it holds accountable those folks that are the highest emitters, that otherwise — if we didn't have this in place — may, for financial reasons or other reasons, just not take that extra step to reduce their emissions.”

After beginning her career as a nurse in a Milwaukee community hospital, Jensen found environmental health advocacy out of a desire to tackle the “upstream" factors that led patients to her care in the first place.

“What can we do to help this so you’re not even in the hospital?” she remembers thinking. “Because I don’t want to see you in the hospital, unless you’re visiting.”

Air pollution emerged as a critical factor in shaping her patients’ health. In Milwaukee, exposure to harmful air pollution is part of a legacy of racist housing policies, which clustered communities of color near highways and heavy industry.

“In one of our lowest-income zip codes, 53205 — traditionally redlined in the past, by the way — children are hospitalized at rates that are 10 times higher than those just one or two zip codes nearby,” Jensen said.

A 2022 Clean Wisconsin analysis found that people of color in the state are exposed to 26% more soot than the state average, one of the highest such disparities in the nation. Black Wisconsinites are exposed to 41% more.

Pollution levels won’t change overnight. States will have time to revise the plans that outline how they will comply with the new standard. The EPA doesn’t expect to start enforcing the new rule until 2032.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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