Ozone Alert

Monday, March 17, 2008

LAST WEEK the Environmental Protection Agency tightened the limits on the amount of smog-inducing pollutants that could be released into the air from 84 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion. This is important. Not since 1997 had the ozone standard been strengthened. The EPA estimates up to 2,300 fewer premature deaths and savings of up to $19 billion in health-care costs by 2020. But the intervention of President Bush in the decision has environmental activists questioning whether politics trumped science in fashioning the new ozone rules.

Good ozone is what protects Earth from the burning rays of the sun. But bad ozone, which can lead to and aggravate respiratory ailments during long exposure, forms when sunlight and heat at the ground level mix with the emissions from cars, power plants and other entities. The Clean Air Act regulates the bad ozone on two levels. The primary standard seeks to protect public health while the secondary one guards the public welfare or the overall environment. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that in setting the new limit, only science can be considered, not the costs of implementation.

There was a vigorous debate within the administration over how to monitor and measure the two standards and over whether to join the two standards under a common approach or to deal with them separately. The back-and-forth is discussed in the EPA's final rule, including Mr. Bush's decision last week that the two standards should be joined. Environmentalists are enraged because, they say, the president usurped EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson's authority under the Clean Air Act to make the final determination. They are also unnerved that the agency ignored a scientific advisory panel's recommendation of limits between 60 and 70 parts per billion for public health. And they are concerned that Mr. Bush's "consistent with administration policy" justification for joining the standards is a cover for letting cost considerations determine the new limits.

In fact Mr. Johnson wants the law changed so that costs can be counted when pollution standards are crafted. The administration's rationale: What's the use in passing standards that states and counties can't afford? Under the previous standard, 85 counties were in violation, including a few between Washington and New York. That number shoots up to 345 under the new rules. Mr. Bush's intervention may touch off a useful debate.

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