Ground-Level Ozone Too High for New Standard in 31 States

WASHINGTON, DC, April 16, 2004 (ENS) - Thirty-one governors learned Thursday that areas of their states do not meet new federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog. Part or all of 474 counties nationwide are in nonattainment for either failing to meet the eight hour ozone standard or for causing a downwind county to fail.

Ground-level ozone, a primary ingredient in smog, is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides react chemically in the presence of sunlight. Car, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities are primary sources of these emissions.


Smog and fog blend as traffic crosses the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. (Photo courtesy Caltrans)
Once designations and classifications take effect on June 15, the nonattainment states and communities must prepare a plan to reduce ground-level ozone. They will have to implement specific cleanup measures required under the Clean Air Act to achieve clean air by deadlines ranging from 2007 to 2010, depending on the extent of the local ozone pollution problem.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for administering the new ozone rule, said the vast majority of counties, 2,668 in total, meet the new standard.

The eight hour ozone standard, 0.08 parts per million (ppm), averaged over eight hours, replaces the one hour standard that has been in place since 1979. The eight hour standard was issued in 1997 after research showed that longer term exposure to lower levels of ozone can also affect human health.

Exposure to ground level ozone aggravates asthma, damages the lining of the lungs and makes breathing more difficult. Some 159 million people live in areas that do not meet the new ozone standard.

The South has the highest increase of localities that violate the new eight hour ozone standard. While the number of ozone nonattainment counties or partial counties in the country as a whole is almost double under the new standard - up from 232 to 474 - the number in the South is up six-fold, from 25 to 124. The South includes the six states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.


Nashville skyline on a smoggy day (Photo by William Crook courtesy City of Nashville)
The top four ranked metro areas in the country with the highest vehicle nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions per capita are - first Nashville, Tennessee; then Atlanta, Georgia; then two in North Carolina - the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point area, and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt stressed that the new ozone designations do not represent failure. “This isn't about the air getting dirtier,” he said. “The air is getting cleaner. These new rules are about our new understanding of health threats, about our standards getting tougher and our national resolve to meet them.”

Many states received good news. The entire population in Iowa, Minnesota, Florida, Mississippi, Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska are breathing air that meets the new standard. The EPA found no nonattainment areas in the Northwest or in many of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain and Great Basin states.

But in nonattainment areas, states and localities may be required to impose stricter controls on emissions from industrial facilities, additional planning requirements for transportation sources or undertake other programs like gasoline vapor recovery controls.

“These ozone standards are strong medicine,” Leavitt wrote the governors. “As a former Governor of Utah, I recognize that having parts of your state designated as being in nonattainment will require more actions on your part to achieve cleaner, healthier air. We need to work together to make certain your state can, as others have in the past, clean the air while sustaining economic growth.”

A nonattainment designation does not mean that an area must curb its growth nor does it mean the loss of highway funds – two common myths associated with ozone designation.

Leavitt said the EPA plans to work with states and local governments to help develop innovative approaches to meeting the new standard.

Based on measured levels of ozone throughout the state, New Jersey was designated as a "moderate" nonattainment area, a designation that drew a sharp rebuke to the Bush administration from New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, a Democrat.

"The Bush administration’s lack of leadership and its failure to stop polluters, especially in the Midwest, continues to damage New Jersey’s air quality," McGreevey said.

"While my administration has taken a number of steps to improve air quality for our state, The White House continues to protect polluters," the New Jersey governor said. "The Bush administration must recognize that the country needs uniform clean air regulations." McGreevey has asked state officials to determine how the federal government can assist the state to meet the new standards.

New Jersey

New Jersey highway (Photo courtesy AA Roadtrips)
On Thursday the EPA announced a suite of interrelated actions known as the Clean Air Rules of 2004 which include national tools to help states and communities meet the new eight hour ozone standard.

The Clean Air Interstate Rule addresses power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, both of which blow across state lines and impact pollution levels, including ozone pollution, in downwind cities.

The EPA’s Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule will regulate emissions from construction and other nonroad equipment powered by diesel engines. The rule also cuts sulfur levels in diesel fuel by more than 99 percent over current levels.

“This expansion of the areas identified as polluted with ozone is critical in the ongoing effort to clean up our air, and keep it clean in our rapidly expanding cities,” said David Farren, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

But Farren criticized the Clean Air Rules of 2004, which have not been released in detail, saying they "appear to weaken the cleanup requirements and allow EPA to grant deadline extensions without penalties to the polluted regions."

The American Lung Association welcomed the decision to include the nation’s counties with smog problems in the official ozone nonattainment designations. But the association criticized the EPA for "choosing to bow to political pressure and drop key counties in many areas where air quality is poor, hurting the ability of many areas to provide cleaner air for their residents."

The Lung Association called the final rule "too weak to effectively guide communities and states in their planning to clean up the air," and said that in some cases, "EPA’s rule actually will slow the pace of clean up that existed under the old standard."

The EPA’s rule gives most of the newly designated areas up to a decade before they must adopt clean up measures, the Lung Association said, and let cities that failed to meet the old standard by putting measures in place in 1994 off the hook. Today’s new rule gives them until 2007 to get their plans in place and until 2016 to clean up the pollution."

"Bottom line," the Lung Association said, "a child in first grade today will graduate high school before the air pollution is cleaned up in her community. Now is not the time to build in more delay."

map The EPA explains that deadlines for meeting the eight hour ozone standard range from 2007 to 2021, depending on the severity of an area's ozone problem. For example, areas with more significant ozone problems, such as Los Angeles, may have to apply more rigorous control measures, but will have a longer time to meet the ozone standards.

In 1997, the EPA, following litigation by the American Lung Association, set tougher ozone pollution health standards based on the latest scientific research. Thursday’s action by the EPA is the result of a settlement of further American Lung Association litigation that required the agency to begin the necessary steps to implement the new health based air pollution standards.

Implementation of the new standard was held up by a lengthy legal battle brought against the EPA by the American Trucking Associations which challenged the standard as being arbitrary and capricious, and not supported by the record. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the EPA had the constitutional authority to set the new standard, on March 29, 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected all remaining challenges to the standard, finding that the EPA was neither arbitrary nor capricious in setting it.

When inhaled, even at very low levels, smog can make people more susceptible to respiratory infection, result in inflammation of lung tissue, aggravate existing respiratory diseases such as asthma, and lead to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits. Smog can cause decreases in lung function and increased respiratory symptoms such as chest pain and cough.

The new ozone standard is intended to protect the most vulnerable members of the population - children, people with asthma and the elderly.

View the EPA's final designations online at: