New U.S. Smog Rules Clouded by Controversy
By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 12, 2008 (ENS) - The Bush administration has tightened federal air quality standards for smog-forming ozone, but not to the extent recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's scientific advisers. The decision was met with dismay by state and local air quality officials, public health advocates and environmental groups, who contend the new rules fail to adequately protect the public or the environment from the serious health hazards of smog.

The head of the EPA defended his decision during a press call Wednesday, telling reporters he analyzed "the most recent scientific evidence" about the health and environmental impacts of ozone before making his decision.

"The bottom line is I adhered to the law and I adhered to the science," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

The rules, which cover average concentrations of ground-level ozone over an eight-hour period, lower the current standard of 80-84 parts per billion, ppb, to 75 ppb.

A band of smog hangs over Los Angeles. (Photo credit unknown)

Ozone is formed in the presence of sunlight by reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants are released by motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial facilities.

Linked to a slew of respiratory ailments, ground-level ozone - the main ingredient in smog - has major public health impacts and can damage ecosystems even at low levels.

Johnson told reporters that since EPA last updated the standards in 1997, scientific studies have indicated that the health impacts from ozone "are more significant and more certain than we previously thought."

But critics remained unconvinced that Johnson has followed the science.

"EPA's new standard is like lowering the speed limit in a neighborhood from 85 miles per hour to 75," said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program. "Sure, it's better, but it still won't get the job done in keeping folks safe.

Walke and other critics note that EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended a stricter standard.

The committee sent a letter to Johnson last year outlining its "unanimous recommendation" that the standard be set "no greater" than 70 ppb and suggested it could be set as low as 60 ppb.

That recommendation was echoed by an EPA children's health advisory panel, as well as more than 100 scientists and a long list of public health advocacy groups and environmental organizations.

"We wish we could be happier about this decision, but we cannot," said Bernadette Toomey, head of the American Lung Association. "We are unable to celebrate half measures when the risks are so evident, when the science and the scientists are so united about what is needed and when the missed opportunity means that thousands will suffer more and die sooner than they should."

The agency also refused to set a separate standard, recommended by the science advisers and the National Park Service, to protect natural ecosystems from the impacts of smog.

When pressed on what weight he gave the recommendations of EPA's science advisers, Johnson repeatedly stated that his final decision complied with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Atlanta steeped in smog (Photo by Ben Ramsay)

The law requires EPA to review air quality standards for several pollutants, including ozone, every five years. EPA is bound by the statute to determine the standards based solely on the scientific knowledge of impacts on public health it is not permitted to consider economic impacts.

The law requires the EPA administrator "protect public health with an adequate margin of safety," Johnson said. "I followed my obligations."

Industry groups and governors from at least 11 states lobbied against the changes, arguing that new rules are too costly and the health impacts of the stricter standards questionable.

"EPA is promising health benefits that people may never receive, even though they'll end up paying for them at the pump and through higher energy bills," said John Kinsman, spokesman for the Edison Electric Group, an electric utility lobbying group.

At least 345 counties do not meet the new standard and could be forced to take measures to cut emissions of smog-forming pollutants.

Johnson acknowledged that it would take years for the rules to truly enter into effect. EPA won't determine which areas are officially not in compliance until 2010. Counties out of attainment with the rules will then have at least three years to develop plans to cut smog and could have up to two decades to make the reductions, the EPA chief told reporters.

EPA estimates the new rules could cost some $7.6 to $8.5 billion. Health benefits could range between $2 billion and $19 billion, according to agency estimates.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said the rules would require relatively few areas of the country to take additional smog cleanup steps beyond those already planned.

"Unfortunately, real science appears to have been tainted by political science," O'Donnell said. "The Bush administration is compromising public health to save industry money."

Johnson rejected claims that he considered economic costs when making his decision, but added that the Bush administration is keen to see the Clean Air Act changed so that future decisions can take into account the economic impacts and feasibility of more stringent air quality standards.

"It is time to modernize the Clean Air Act to improve human health," Johnson said. "We have a responsibility to overhaul and enhance to ensure it translates from paper promises to cleaner air."

Democrats in Congress were quick to throw cold water on the administration's call for an overhaul of the law.

The idea is "outrageous," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.