EPA splits difference on ozone clean air standard

Groups representing manufacturers, oil refiners, paper mills and other industries are criticizing a move by the Environmental Protection Agency to toughen ozone clean-air rules, even though the proposal fell well short of what a group of science advisers had recommended.

EPA’s proposed standards seek to reduce ozone levels from 84 parts per billion, the current level, to between 70 and 75 parts per billion. Ozone exacerbates preexisting lung conditions, like asthma, and can lead to lung infections.

The EPA on Wednesday night released its proposed rule, which will be followed by a public comment period. That is likely to generate a significant number of responses, given the potentially high costs to comply with the new rule and its estimated health benefits. The final rule will be published in March 2008.

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Environmental and health groups have credited EPA for proposing a tougher standard, as they held out hope the agency would implement the science advisory panel’s stricter recommendation.

The group of scientific advisers had found “overwhelming scientific evidence” that limiting ozone standards to between 60 to 70 parts per billion would reduce hospital visits and result in other health benefits. The panel unanimously recommended that the EPA limit ozone to within that range.

The proposed standard is a “step toward cleaner air,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, a group that has been particularly active in pushing the EPA to toughen its ozone standard.

The association is “pleased” with the new standards. But it also noted the plan “falls short” of the science panel’s recommendation.

An additional worry to Edelman and others is the EPA’s decision to accept comments that advocate leaving the ozone standard in place. Doing so “leaves the door open to choosing options that are simply not acceptable,” Edelman said, in a statement released by the lung association.

For business groups, the possibility of convincing EPA to leave the standard in place is the silver lining to the proposed rule.

While EPA did not accept the science panel’s recommendations, the proposed rule would still have a “very detrimental impact on manufacturing employment, while in our opinion providing only nominal, if any, health benefits,” said Bryan Brendle of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The American Forest and Paper Association said efforts in Congress to boost production of alternative fuels like ethanol would make it even more difficult to comply with new ozone rules.

Some studies suggest ethanol can increase ozone levels, a finding the ethanol industry rejects.

Charlie Drevna of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association said the EPA’s proposal “could result in further negative impacts on American businesses as they attempt to compete in a global marketplace.”    

Business groups noted that ozone standards have dropped 21 percent since 1980 even as the economy has grown.

The current standards have yet to be fully implemented, Drevna and others noted. More than 400 localities are out of compliance with the ozone standard, and they must adopt a plan to cut their ozone levels or face a loss of federal highway money.

Backers of tougher smog rules worry that a concerted effort by business groups could overwhelm what they see as irrefutable proof of the health benefits offered by taking ozone out of the air.

“The science is crystal-clear that we need better standards to protect kids with asthma and millions of other breathers,” said Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. “But EPA seems to be hedging its bets.”

In a statement, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said, “By strengthening the ozone standard, EPA is keeping our clean air momentum moving into the future.”