EPA staff backs new ozone restrictions

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) staff asked Administrator Gina McCarthy to lower the acceptable level for ozone pollution, saying it would improve public health.

The staff’s recommendation, part of a nearly 600-page report on potential changes to the ozone standard, largely matches what the EPA’s advisory panel of outside scientists concluded in June.

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“The available scientific evidence and exposure/risk information provide strong support for considering a primary O3 standard with a revised level in order to increase public health protection, including for at-risk populations and lifestages,” the staff wrote.

Specifically, the EPA’s staff asked that the ground-level ozone standard be lowered to between 60 and 70 parts per billion, down from the current 75 parts per billion.

Areas with higher levels must submit plans to the EPA to lower their concentrations of ozone, a byproduct of pollutants from burning fossil fuels. It’s also known as smog, and it has been linked to various respiratory conditions.

“A standard set within this range would result in important improvements in public protection, compared to the current standard, and could reasonably be judged to provide an appropriate degree of public health protection,” the staff wrote.

The Friday report, along with two risk and exposure assessments, are part of the normal EPA process for considering changing air quality standards. EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia emphasized that the publications do not represent a proposed rule.

“They are provided to the EPA administrator, who will consider the information they contain, along with public comments and advice from the agency’s independent science advisers, in determining whether to propose revisions to the standards,” Purchia said.

McCarthy is planning to decide by December whether to propose changing the standard.

The Sierra Club and the American Lung Association both took the report as an opportunity to endorse the 60 parts per billion standard.

“The EPA’s smog pollution policy assessment confirms again that the current standard does not adequately protect the health of our communities and that we need a more restrictive standard,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

“EPA’s assessment confirms what the health and medical community long ago concluded: the current ozone standard fails to protect public health as the Clean Air Act requires,” Paul Billings, the Lung Association’s senior vice president, said in a statement. “Americans have been living with an outdated standard for far too long.”

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has been one of the leading groups opposed to lowering the ozone standard.

NAM said in July that a 60 parts-per-billion standard could be the most expensive regulation in history. By 2040, the rule could cost $2.2 trillion in compliance costs, $3.4 trillion to the economy and 2.9 million lost jobs, a NAM-commissioned study found.

Lawmakers have started to attack the potential regulation as well.