The Washington Post
EPA Is Expected to Announce Proposal for Stricter Ozone Standards
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce today that current federal standards for limiting harmful ozone air pollution do not adequately protect the public and need to be strengthened.
But the agency’s proposal will also leave open the possibility that current standards are adequate and should not be changed, according to people who have been briefed on the document.
Even before the proposal was formally released, the inclusion of the two possibilities left advocates in the long and heated debate over ozone pollution alternately encouraged and worried. Business and industry groups are strongly opposed to any tightening of ozone standards, while supporters of stricter standards note that the EPA’s own science advisers voted unanimously in favor of lowering the allowable limits.
EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said yesterday that the agency had not finished deliberations on the document and that reports of what it will contain were “speculation.”
Officials from both the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, however, said they have been briefed on the main points and that they include a proposed reduction in allowable ozone from 84 parts per billion to between 70 and 75 parts per billion.
They also said the proposal would include a formal statement that the EPA is willing to hear comments from those who want to maintain the current standard — suggesting that when the final ozone rule is issued, it might call for no change at all.
“The proposal to lower the ozone levels are a step in the right direction and would better protect the public,” said Janice Nolen, vice president for national policy for the American Lung Association. “But allowing continued comments about keeping the current level is an absolutely and seriously bad decision.”
The association sued the EPA in 2003 over the agency’s failure to do a periodic scientific review of ozone research, as required by the Clean Air Act.
Bryan Brendle, air quality policy director for the National Association of Manufacturers, had the opposite view, saying that lowering the allowable ozone levels would seriously harm the economy while providing little or no health benefit.
“We would adamantly oppose lowering the standard to the level being discussed and would work hard to keep it from happening,” he said.
Ozone, commonly known as smog, is a gas that forms in the air when hydrocarbons mix with nitrogen oxides at times of bright sunlight and elevated heat. The components of smog come from power plants, cars, trucks and trains, refineries, gas stations and other industrial sources.
Ozone is known to, exacerbate and perhaps cause, asthma and can lead to shortness of breath, chest pains and lung inflammation. Recent research has suggested that it can shorten the lives of elderly people, children and those with other lung problems.
The ozone standard was lowered by the EPA in 1997, a decision that was strenuously opposed by business and industry groups.
The Clean Air Act requires a scientific review of the ozone standard every five years, and the American Lung Association and other advocacy groups sued the agency after that period had passed with no action. The two sides reached an agreement that resulted in the agency’s commitment to produce a new review and proposal by midnight yesterday.
Under the agreement, the EPA called together its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee to review recent studies on the health effects of ozone. The committee ultimately concluded unanimously that the current standard does not adequately protect public health. It urged lowering the allowable level to 60 to 70 parts per billion.
According to S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, 104 of the 639 counties currently monitored for ozone pollution are still not complying with the 1997 standards. Under the new EPA proposal, 398 counties would be in violation of standards, he said.
Under the Clean Air Act, local officials in areas that exceed allowable air pollution levels are required to take steps to come into compliance or possibly lose federal funds. The Washington area has been a chronic violator of air pollution standards, and Nolen of the American Lung Association pointed out that height- ened “code orange” pollution-level warnings have been necessary for the past two days.
According to the supporters of stricter standards, business and industry groups have gone to the White House in recent days to lobby against the EPA proposal. On its Web site, the National Association of Manufacturers said in a summary: “The NAM continues to educate key Administration officials about the necessity of offering the current standard as a regulatory option on which to comment during the upcoming rulemaking. The cost of implementing a stricter standard could exceed $100 billion.”
By formally allowing comments on keeping the current ozone standards unchanged, the advocates said, the administration did what the business community asked for.
The public will have 90 days to comment on the proposed rule, and public hearings are being planned around the country.