updated 9/21/2006 3:56:43 PM ET 2006-09-21T19:56:43

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced new limits on how many tiny particles of soot that people safely can breathe each day, rejecting tougher standards recommended by its own experts and drawing criticism from both local air quality officials and industry.

The EPA kept some of its 1997 standards for soot particles — those smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair — that lodge in the lungs and blood vessels.

Experts advising the agency had said that the science supports tougher standards than EPA chose. Other air pollution experts and advocates complained of political tinkering.

The health-based limits on soot are considered an important part of the Clean Air Act, helping save 15,000 people a year from premature deaths due to heart and lung diseases.

EPA officials expect their decision will cut by roughly half the allowable particulate emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes. The advisory panel said they should be cut slightly more.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson called them “the most health protective national air standards in U.S. history.”

“Wherever the science gave us a clear picture, we took clear action,” he said. “There was not complete agreement” by the scientific advisory panel.

The agency said it was tightening its 24-hour standard for fine particles, which the agency says will deliver health benefits of $9 billion to $75 billion a year. It retained the annual limit for fine particles, but revoked a standard for coarser particles.

Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air-pollution control officials, said EPA’s rule defies the agency’s principle of using the best available science.

“For the first time in its 36-year history, EPA has ignored the recommendations of its independent scientific advisers, as well as agency staff experts, in setting health-based air quality standards,” Becker said in a statement. “This final action will result in thousands of avoidable premature deaths, and thousands of cases of cardiovascular and lung disease throughout the country.”

Power plant operators also were unhappy with EPA’s action, said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute.

“We think EPA has jumped the gun by adopting a more stringent standard before the existing standards have been given a chance to work,” Riedinger said. “Our hope, obviously, is that these reductions will provide a real health benefit, though EPA hasn’t adequately made that case.”

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