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Polluting Industries Say the Cost of Cleaner Air Is Too High

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to announce new regulations governing soot — the particles that trucks, farms, factories, wildfires, power plants and dusty roads generate. By law, the agency isn’t supposed to consider the impact on polluting industries. In practice, it does — and those industries are warning of dire economic consequences.

Under the Clean Air Act, every five years the E.P.A. re-examines the science around several harmful pollutants. Fine particulate matter is extremely dangerous when it percolates into human lungs, and the law has driven a vast decline in concentrations in areas like Los Angeles and the Ohio Valley.

But technically there is no safe level of particulate matter, and ever-spreading wildfire smoke driven by a changing climate and decades of forest mismanagement has reversed recent progress. The Biden administration decided to short-circuit the review cycle after the E.P.A. in the Trump administration concluded that no change was needed. As the decision nears, business groups are ramping up resistance.

Last month, a coalition of major industries, including mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, and timber, sent a letter to the White House chief of staff, Jeffrey D. Zients, warning that “no room would be left for new economic development” in many areas if the E.P.A. went ahead with a standard as tough as it was contemplating, endangering the manufacturing recovery that President Biden had pushed with laws funding climate action and infrastructure investment.

Twenty years ago, generating electric power caused far higher soot emissions, so “there was room” to tighten air quality standards, said Chad Whiteman, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs at the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, in an interview. “Now we’re down to the point where the costs are extremely high,” he said, “and you start bumping into unintended consequences.”

Research shows that in the first decades after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1967, the rules lowered output and employment, as well as productivity, in pollution-intensive industries. That’s why the cost of those rules has often drawn industry protests. This time, steel and aluminum producers have voiced particularly strong objections, with one company predicting that a tighter standard would “greatly diminish the possibility” that it could restart a smelter in Kentucky that it idled in 2022 because of high energy prices.

Jim Schimmer is the director of economic development for Franklin County, which includes Columbus. He has been pushing a plan to turn an old airport the county owns into a low-emissions, power-generating transportation and logistics hub, complete with solar arrays and electrified short-haul trucks, and he thinks stronger rules on particulate matter could help.

“This is such a great opportunity for us,” Mr. Schimmer said.

The Cleveland area is a different story, with a high concentration of steel, chemical, aviation and machinery production. Its regional planning council declined to comment on the prospect of stricter air quality rules. Chris Ronayne, the Democratic executive of Cuyahoga County, was cautious in discussing the subject, emphasizing the need for financial assistance to help companies upgrade to lower their emissions.

“I think there is an attitude of ‘work with us, with carrot approaches, not just the big stick,’” Mr. Ronayne said. “Come at us, in a manufacturing town, with both incentives to help us get there as well as the regulation.”

Ohio has an entity to help with that. The Ohio Air Quality Development Authority was created 50 years ago to clean up the brown clouds that came out of smokestacks, using a combination of grants and low-cost revenue bond financing to help businesses fund upgrades like solar panels and scrubbers that filter exhaust from industrial facilities like incinerators and concentrated animal feeding operations.

“One of the huge imbalances in our region is that the trend has been to cater to industry, treat them with kid gloves, give them billions of dollars in incentive money for them to continue their practices,” Dr. Garoupa said. “They’re generating wealth, but not for the people that actually live in the valley and are breathing the air.”

Rebecca Maurer is a City Council member representing a Cleveland neighborhood that has some of the area’s worst pollution. Her office frequently hears from constituents seeking help with housing that is safer for children with asthma, which occurs at alarming rates. The district encompasses an industrial cluster that includes two steel plants, an asphalt plant, a recycling depot, rail yards and assorted small factories.

That’s the most visible source of emissions, but Ms. Maurer thinks her district’s many highways — and the diesel-powered trucks driving on them — offer the greatest opportunity for cleaning up the air, which requires state and federal action. And light manufacturing jobs are needed to employ the two-thirds of the county’s residents who lack college degrees, she said.

“What we don’t want is another asphalt plant, and we don’t want e-commerce,” Ms. Maurer said. “We want something in between. We’re trying to thread this needle between these hugely polluting plants and low density, low-wage warehouse jobs.”

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