US Environmental Protection Agency proposes stricter new standards for smog regulation

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Publish date: January 6, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday proposed "the strictest health standards to date for smog," which has been linked to a variety of health problems, including aggravated asthma and premature death from heart and lung disease, shoving aside a Bush-era limit that ran counter to scientific recommendations.

According to some analysts, the move shows the regulatory strength that US President Barack Obama has imbued in a federal agency while the Senate continues to let climate legislation sit on ice.

The new limits – which are presented as a range – will likely put hundreds more counties nationwide in violation, a designation that will require them to find additional ways to clamp down on pollution or face government sanctions, most likely the loss of federal highway dollars.

The tighter standards will cost tens of billions of dollars to implement, but will ultimately save billions in avoided emergency room visits, premature deaths, and missed work and school days, the EPA said.

Though such regulatory – as opposed to legislative – moves are likely to produce long court battles, said Bellona President Frederic Hauge, it nevertheless shows the commitment of the US administration to bring blunter instruments to bear on shaving US emissions and improving air quality.

A strong mandate for the EPA, said Hauge, was an essential ingredient for the United States to bring to the Copenhagen climate summit to make up for legislative shortfalls.

Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA, said the new proposed regulations will throw down the gauntlet for greater state-by-state participating in cleaning up America’s air.
“The tighter regulations will mean cleaner air for all Americans,” said Templle. “The Administration is challenging state and local governments to raise air quality standards which should encourage further innovation and the deployment of new technologies to protect our environment.”

Environmentalists against big oil

The EPA move was immediately applauded by environmental groups as well as the American Lung Association, but the oil industry was waiting in the wings to dump cold water on the new proposed regulations saying the proposals “politicise the scientific process.”

”If EPA follows through, it will mean significantly cleaner air and better health protection,” Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, told Bellona Web.

The American Lung Association followed suit.

“EPA is following the overwhelming evidence that our nation needs a stronger ozone standard,” ALA President Charles Connor said in a statement. “EPA owes this protection to the millions who live where ozone smog sends children to the emergency room and shortens the lives of people with chronic lung disease.”

But the American Petroleum Institute countered that quickly.

”There is absolutely no basis for EPA to propose changing the ozone standards promulgated by the EPA Administrator in 2008,” said the institute in a statement.

”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 essence of smog

Smog forms when a mixture of pollutants from industrial facilities, power plants, motor vehicles and other sources react in sunlight. It can cause respiratory problems, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain, and leads to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

The agency proposed Thursday to set the health-based “primary” standard for smog within a range of 60 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) when averaged over an 8-hour period. EPA will select a specific figure within that range later this year.

The Bush administration tightened the ozone limits from 84 ppb to 75 ppb in 2008, despite scientific advisers’ recommendations to issue a standard between 60 ppb and 70 ppb.

Former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was set to issue a more protective secondary standard in 2008, but the agency rewrote the regulations to include identical primary and secondary standards after the White House intervened on the eve of the agency’s court-ordered deadline, Greenwire reported.

New regulations may be imposed on unsuspecting areas

While smog has been a long-term problem in parts of Texas, California, and along the northeast Coast, the new standards could affect counties in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa for the first time based on EPA data reviewed by Bellona Web.

The the draft regulation released by the EPA proposes to revise the two standards aimed at protecting public health and welfare to comply with recommendations made by the agency’s science advisers.

EPA’s Jackson fights for ‘healthier’ living

”EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters Thursday. ”Using the best science to strengthen these standards is long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier.”

EPA is also proposing a separate “secondary” standard aimed at protecting vegetation and ecosystems, including parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. The draft rule recommends setting that standard within the range of 7 to 15 parts per million-hours. Such a standard would be based on a cumulative, weighted total of daily 12-hour ozone exposures to plants and crops over a three-month period. The agency’s science advisers recommended setting a separate secondary standard prior to the release of the 2008 rule.

“Depending on the level of the final standard, the proposal would yield health benefits between $13 billion and $100 billion,” Jackson’s EPA stated.

“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,” said Jackson.

The EPA will take public comment for 60 days, as well as hold three public hearings, before making a final decision