EPA Proposes Strict Smog Rules; One for the Public, One for Trees

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a ground-level ozone standard of 0.075 parts per million (ppm) in 2008, the Obama Administration agency has revised that decision after reviewing again more than 1,700 scientific studies and public comments from the previous rulemaking process. Today, EPA proposed a primary ozone standard between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm, the strictest health standard to date for smog.

Ground-level ozone forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills and motor vehicles react in the sun. It is linked to a number of serious health problems, ranging from aggravation of asthma to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease. Ozone can harm healthy people who work and play outdoors.

The agency's decision was not surprising. The EPA press release said that many people believe the previous standards were not protective enough of human health. And yesterday, the American Lung Association (ALA) sponsored a media call in which several interested parties commented on the news before it was official.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said that in 2008 EPA's science committee recommended a tougher standard than what the agency settled on. "Political leaders blew it, blew off the recommendations of the science advisers," O'Donnell said. "This is a chance for EPA to get it right."

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said: “EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face. Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease. It dirties our air, clouds our cities, and drives up our health care costs across the country. Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier.”

The agency will take public comment for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. The agency will hold three public hearings on the proposal: Feb. 2, in Arlington, Va. and in Houston; and Feb. 4, in Sacramento.

The proposed “primary” standard, which protects public health, would be set at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm measured over eight hours. A proposed “secondary” standard is a seasonal standard designed to protect plants and trees from damage occurring from repeated ozone exposure, which can reduce tree growth, damage leaves, and increase susceptibility to disease.

EarthJustice attorney David Baron told media representatives that the National Park Service has called for a strict cumulative standard to protect the 290 national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, under its jurisdiction. The smog burns plant tissue, stunts growth, damages and mottles leaves, and can contribute to their premature death. Baron noted that the secondary standard would apply everywhere.

Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy and advocacy at ALA, said that EPA is hoping to speed implementation of its new standards, hoping to get them finalized by August so that communities having serious smog problems can be identified by Aug. 2011.

Recognizing that many companies will not like the new standard, Nolen said that the old arguments – the economy will suffer and our air is clean enough – are not true. Since 1970, the U.S. has cut emissions by 60 percent; she noted and explained that the Office of Management and Budget did a study on the cost versus the benefits of cleanup from 1997 to 2007. "The Bush administration found that the benefits outweighed the costs by 3 to 1," Nolen said.

Depending on the level of the final standard, the proposal would yield health benefits between $13 billion and $100 billion, according to EPA's press release. This proposal would help reduce premature deaths, aggravated asthma, bronchitis cases, hospital and emergency room visits and days when people miss work or school because of ozone-related symptoms. Estimated costs of implementing this proposal range from $19 billion to $90 billion.

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