Industry works to block ozone standard

Business lobbyists are pressing White House officials to reject a more stringent clean air standard for ozone that environmental and health groups argue would reduce asthma and other pulmonary illnesses.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce soon a new standard for ozone levels in air, as part of a required review of National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Ozone, also known as smog, can trigger asthma attacks and cause other respiratory illnesses. Some studies suggest that it can lead to heart attacks and early death.

The members of a group of scientists that advises EPA on clean air rules unanimously recommended the agency lower the standard to between 60 to 70 parts per billion in the air, from the current standard of 84 parts per billion.

“What is literally at stake here is the quality of the air Americans will breathe for many years into the future,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

By court order, EPA has to release its proposed rule by June 20, after which a public comment period commences. A final rule won’t come until next year.

The jockeying between industry and health and environmental groups is already in full swing, however, with each side proclaiming the science is on their side.

Business groups say the target pushed by the science advisory panel is too aggressive. The health benefits a more stringent standard offers are insufficient to justify the potential for economic harm, business lobbyists say.

They have carried that message to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which reviews federal agency rules, in recent meetings. Officials from the American Automobile Alliance, the American Chemistry Council and the Edison Electric Institute met with OMB officials like regulatory czar Susan Dudley, public records show.

William Kovacs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs, said the standard proposed by the science advisory committee would greatly increase the number of counties in non-attainment, a measure based on ozone levels over an eight-hour period.

Currently, as many as 442 localities are in non-attainment, most of which are in population centers in the East and Southwest. If EPA went as low as 60 parts per billion, as many as 1,300 counties could be in similar circumstances.

The penalty for being in non-attainment is a loss of federal highway funds. States have to show that the non-attainment counties have a plan to comply with the ozone standards to avoid a loss of funding.

While a loss of highway money is rare, a practical consequence of non-attainment is that local officials are less likely to issue building permits to manufacturers or other industries, Kovacs said.

The Chamber sent a letter to its grassroots network noting the upcoming EPA announcement. In it, the Chamber said non-attainment effectively “redlines” an area, that is, shuts it down to any further economic development.

“No business would go there because it couldn’t get a permit,” Kovacs said.

 Charles Territo, of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the science used to justify the new standard hasn’t changed appreciably since the mid-1990s, when the current ozone standard was implemented.   

“There hasn’t been any developments that support revising or raising the stringency of the standard,” he said.

An industry lawyer said the studies the advisory group relied on often use inconsistent standards for measurements and don’t always take into account how other pollutants could affect asthma rates or other lung-related illnesses.

The source also criticized the science advisory committee for underestimating the levels of “background” ozone, which is smog that isn’t generated locally, in justifying the more stringent standard. If the advisory committee used the background ozone measurements used in the mid-1990s, the potential benefits of lowering the standard would be much smaller than the current advisory panel supposes, the industry lobbyist said.

The advisory committee, however, said there was “overwhelming scientific evidence” that limiting ozone to between 60 and 70 parts per billion would reduce hospital visits and result in other health benefits.

Dr. John Balbus, chief health scientist for Environmental Defense, said epidemiological and laboratory studies show how ozone at levels currently allowed under the law damage and inflame lung tissue.

“The scientific case for lowering the ozone standard is clear,” he said.