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Philadelphia’s Black communities would suffer most from weakened air pollution rules

Lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington must resist an industry-driven push to undo a plan to toughen air quality standards.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires last June hung over the Philadelphia skyline. The city recorded its worst air quality on record that month.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires last June hung over the Philadelphia skyline. The city recorded its worst air quality on record that month.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

At the heart of the Clean Air Act lies a promise: Everyone in the United States, no matter where they live, deserves to breathe clean, healthy air. But while air pollution levels have dropped nationwide, the full measure of this promise has been denied to Black communities, including those in Philadelphia.

Indeed, like other metropolitan areas, Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia are more likely to breathe toxic air pollutants, with particulate matter — commonly known as soot — being one of the deadliest. This insidious pollutant causes heart attacks, strokes, asthma, low birth weight, and infant mortality.

Soot comes from tailpipes, smokestacks, and power plants. The placement of many of these pollution sources in Black neighborhoods is no accident. They are the product of decades of bad policy choices like redlining and so-called urban renewal, which devalued Black communities and surrounded them with major pollution sources.

Unsurprisingly, Black Americans are 300% more likely to die from particulate matter pollution than their white counterparts. Equally unsurprisingly, North and West Philadelphia and the Lower Northeast — the city’s Black neighborhoods — are where childhood asthma rates remain the highest, according to the most recent “Health of the City” report.

Finding solutions to Black and Hispanic communities’ disproportionate exposure to particulate matter pollution has been elusive for the country, especially in Philadelphia, for years. But in an admirable move, the Biden administration made tackling air pollution inequality one of its top goals. And in February, after relentless advocacy from groups across the country, the Environmental Protection Agency strengthened the annual air quality standard for particulate matter.

This new standard will force states to reduce particulate matter pollution from industrial and mobile sources, like cars and trucks — and in doing so, it will prevent some 800,000 asthma attacks and save more than 4,500 lives annually by the time the standard is fully implemented in 2032, according to the EPA.

This reduction in mortality from particulate matter pollution isn’t simply an abstract number on a spreadsheet. Anyone who has lost a loved one to heart disease or respiratory illness can understand the grief and trauma of loving and losing someone to chronic illness.

But despite the major lifesaving benefits of this new standard for particulate matter, polluting corporations and some conservative members of Congress decry it as a “job killer.” In Pennsylvania, groups like the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry have argued that the new rules will, among other things, “diminish the prospects” for expanding industries in areas of the state that fail to meet the new standards. And in March of this year, national industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers filed a lawsuit to stop this new rule, arguing that “it would make the U.S. less competitive globally.”

If it weren’t for the fact that some policymakers take these claims seriously, this familiar refrain would be easy to dismiss as a cliche. But some members of Congress are listening, and they are now seeking to overturn the strengthened standard via the Congressional Review Act, a GOP invention of the Newt Gingrich-era that allows lawmakers to kill federal agency rules after they have been promulgated. With many of Pennsylvania’s own elected lawmakers likely to face significant lobbying by industrial polluters, they have failed to indicate how they will vote on this issue.

Members of Congress from Pennsylvania, however, should be skeptical of trade groups and corporations’ slick language. The facts simply do not support the talking points that have been repeated ad nauseam since the EPA began regulating air pollution in the 1970s.

Particulate matter standards have saved 230,000 lives and prevented more than 17 million lost workdays.

For one, pollution limits aren’t “job killers.” On the contrary, studies have shown that as emissions of major pollutants decreased by 74% between 1970 and 2018, the nation’s gross domestic product increased by 275%. Meanwhile, over the past five decades, particulate matter standards have saved 230,000 lives and prevented more than 17 million lost workdays from health-related air pollution effects.

Given the stellar results of clean air safeguards, it is worrisome that many elected officials still want to listen to polluters’ mistaken rhetoric and subject their communities, and Black communities in particular, to the well-known harms air pollution poses. Especially because we are living at a time when the climate crisis — which is driven by emissions from tailpipes, smokestacks, and industrial power plants — fuels unprecedented wildfires that cause increasing pollution not just in the West, but in the Midwest and East now, too.

Just last June, Philadelphia experienced its worst air quality day since the EPA began collecting particulate matter pollution data, as wildfire smoke from Canada blanketed the Northeast of the continental U.S. And while the strengthened particulate matter standard doesn’t directly address wildfires, it improves overall air quality, offering relief on days marred by smoke-filled skies.

A stronger standard means cleaner air, healthier communities, healthier kids, and healthier ecosystems. These are things we should expect our lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington to uphold and defend. The health of our communities, and particularly Black communities, must not be sacrificed so that corporations can continue to pollute with impunity in the pursuit of profit.

Marvin C. Brown IV is a senior attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of Earthjustice, the nonprofit public interest environmental law organization based in San Francisco.