EPA Moving Fast to Revise Ozone Standard

The Environmental Protection Agency is readying a replacement for the current national air quality standard for ozone, or smog, which was roundly fouled up during the Bush administration.

Last Wednesday (Oct. 21), EPA sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) – the gatekeeper for all things regulatory – a draft version of a new notice of proposed rulemaking. That notice will propose revisions to the ozone standard finalized in March 2008.

Although the Clean Air Act requires EPA to update air quality standards every five years, new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson thinks so little of the 2008 regulation that she is setting up an aggressive new timetable (which she agreed to in court after a flurry of lawsuits were filed). EPA says it will publish the notice of proposed rulemaking by Dec. 21 and publish a final rule by August 2010. That’s a pretty fast pace, especially considering that, prior to the 2008 rule, EPA had not updated the ozone standard since 1997 (violating the Clean Air Act’s five-year requirement).

Attention now turns to OIRA. By its own rules, OIRA has 90 days to review agency drafts. (It may request from the agency one 30 day extension.) So far this year, OIRA has typically been reviewing EPA notices in about a month. With the court deadline also looming, expect OIRA to prioritize its review of the proposed ozone standard.

OIRA was at least partially to blame for the current ozone standard. Then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson set the public health standard for ozone 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 public welfare standard for ozone identical to the public health standard. Buckling to last-minute pressure from OIRA, 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.

But with a different administration, we will hopefully see a different result. EPA can now get both standards right and improve public health in the process. By lowering the public health 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.

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