EPA proposes stricter limits on smog pollutants

By Juliet Eilperin
Friday, January 8, 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter limits Thursday on the amount of pollution-forming ozone allowed in the air, significantly tightening rules the Bush administration had set for the nation's most widespread air pollutant.

The new rules, which must undergo 60 days of public comment before becoming final, would help determine the quality of the air Americans will breathe for at least a decade. The change, which represents only the third time in nearly 40 years that the standards have been toughened, could cost industry billions, while preventing thousands of premature deaths a decade from now, the EPA maintains.

The stricter standards would limit ozone in the air to 60 to 70 parts per billion for any eight-hour period, down from 75 ppb. Although the percentage change sounds small, Thursday's move ensures that state and local governments would face a much stricter air quality test in the years ahead.

The final target that the Obama administration adopts will have major implications for the regulations that state and local officials will have to set to meet the new federal requirements, which will become final between 2014 and 2031, depending on the region. Power plants and motor vehicles are significant emitters of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and other chemical compounds, which form ozone when exposed to sunlight, but sources as small as gas lawn mowers could face new restrictions depending on what EPA chooses as its ultimate goal.

Exposure to ground-level ozone, or smog, is linked to an array of heart and respiratory illnesses. Smog causes burning and inflammation in sensitive tissues and can harm wilderness areas and farm crops by stunting the growth of trees and plants.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the nation's oil and gas industry, issued a statement saying the move "lacks scientific justification," because the EPA acknowledges that recent scientific studies on smog's health effects are no different from the research on which the Bush administration based its 2008 ruling.

"To do so is an obvious politicization of the air quality-standard-setting process that could mean unnecessary energy cost increases, job losses and less domestic oil and natural gas development and energy security," the institute said.

Ozone standards have been the center of a political and legal battle since the spring of 2008, when the EPA set a looser limit than what its own scientific advisers had suggested. After robust discussion, George W. Bush's White House then scaled back part of the agency's proposal out of concern for the economic impact and to create a consistent standard for both vegetation and human health. The new proposal mirrors what EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously recommended in 2007.

The American Lung Association challenged the Bush ozone rules in federal court, and as a result EPA agreed in September to review more than 1,700 scientific studies and a raft of other materials that served as the basis for the agency's 2008 decision.

"Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement. "Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier."

Under the Clean Air Act, the government must reexamine every five years whether its ozone standards are adequate, but it traditionally takes more than 10 years to enact new rules. The federal government has changed the standard three times since it was set in 1971, loosening it in 1979 and then tightening it in 1997 and 2008.

Depending on the level of the final standard, EPA estimates that by 2020 the proposal will cost $19 billion to $90 billion to implement and will yield health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion. The proposal would result in 1,500 to 12,000 avoided premature deaths by 2020, though the precise number depends on what limit the agency adopts.

EPA also announced that as part of its new smog proposal it will also set a secondary, seasonal limit to protect plants and trees from prolonged exposure to ozone.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said state and local officials are committed to tackling the nation's smog problem despite the "daunting challenges" doing so poses. "Though the task of putting new, better standards into practice won't be easy, it will most certainly be worth it," he said.

But the administration's plan could spark resistance among industries that will face new regulatory requirements, including utilities that have already cut their nitrogen oxide emissions in recent years.

Edison Electric Institute spokesman Dan Riedinger, whose group represents the majority of electricity generators in the United States, said "there's huge uncertainty about what this and other regulatory requirements will entail for utilities and other sectors."

Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to smog: Studies show that children who grow up in areas with high ozone concentrations never develop the same lung capacity as those who live in less polluted areas, and that they are more likely to develop asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Not a single county in the D.C. area meets the strictest smog standards now envisioned by EPA, according to air quality measurements the agency collected between 2006 and 2008. Both the District and Fairfax had average eight-hour ozone levels of 87 ppb, making Fairfax the smoggiest of 21 monitored counties in Virginia. In Maryland, the city of Baltimore ranked as the least smog-filled monitored area, with an average of 67 ppb, though Baltimore County as a whole averaged 85 ppb.

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