EPA May Tighten Smog Standards

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today that she will review and possibly revise the national air quality standard for ozone, or smog. The Bush administration announced the standard on March 12, 2008, but clean air advocates and good government groups accused Bush officials of ignoring scientific conclusions in the face of political pressure. Today, EPA intimated that it will more closely align the regulation to the underlying science.

From EPA’s press release:

The reconsideration announced today covers both the primary and secondary ozone standards. EPA sets primary air quality standards to protect public health, including the health of sensitive groups, such as children and people with asthma. The secondary standard is set to protect public welfare and the environment, including protection against visibility impairment, damage to animals, crops, vegetation, and buildings. The agency will propose any revisions to the ozone standards by December 2009 and will issue a final decision by August 2010. 

The announcement is a signal that EPA will approach air pollution, and the health effects it causes, with great seriousness and urgency. The agency is not content to wait until the next statutorily mandated revision: The Clean Air Act requires EPA to reconsider and, if appropriate, revise the standards for ozone and certain other pollutants every five years; so the next revision is not due until 2013.

The original rulemaking was mired in controversy. Then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson set the primary standard at 0.075 parts per million (ppm), which clean air advocates said was too lenient. EPA’s scientific advisors recommended a standard between 0.060 and 0.070 ppm.

To make matters worse, Johnson chose to set the secondary standard identical to the primary. Buckling to last-minute pressure from the White House, Johnson abandoned plans to set a separate, seasonal standard that would have provided extra protection for sensitive plantlife. His scientific advisors had recommended the separate standard.

EPA now has the opportunity to correct the Bush administration’s wrongs and generate some big public health gains. By lowering the standard to 0.070 ppm, the top end of the advisors’ recommended range, EPA could prevent an additional 300 premature deaths and 610 heart attacks annually, according to agency estimates.

Unfortunately, EPA’s decision to reassess the ozone standard means we will all have to live through another tired debate about pollution reduction vs. compliance costs (even though the Clean Air Act prohibits the consideration of costs in setting standards for ozone). Industry lobbyists fought tooth and nail against a tighter standard last year and will do so again. Stay tuned for updates.

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