EPA unveils contentious plan to tighten ozone standards

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The Obama administration unveiled an ambitious plan Wednesday that it said would improve public health by slashing the ozone pollution that causes smog.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyThe Clean Water Rule: One year later How Congress got to yes on toxic chemical reform Overnight Energy: Labor rift opens over green mega-donor MORE framed the update to the ground-level ozone standard as an imperative, bringing agency rules in line with the latest science to protect the nation’s most vulnerable populations from a range of respiratory illnesses including asthma.

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“Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk,” McCarthy said in a statement Wednesday morning.

“It empowers the American people with updated air quality information to protect our loved ones — because whether we work or play outdoors — we deserve to know the air we breathe is safe.”

The EPA sought to ward off criticisms surrounding the proposal's costs, saying that many other recent regulations, such as those on vehicle fuels, will reduce ozone and help states meet the standards.

Additionally, states could take until 2020 to 2037 to comply with the new standards under the proposal.

Overall, the agency said decades of environmental rules have improved air and water while the economy has grown greatly, showing that rules like the one announced Wednesday don’t have to hurt business.

But even before the rules were unveiled, they set off a firestorm of criticism from business interests and Republicans.

Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeGOP senators move to keep women out of military draft Senate contradicts itself on Gitmo Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate MORE (R-Okla.), incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, promised lawmakers would scrutinize the rule closely, saying it “will lower our nation's economic competitiveness and stifle job creation for decades.”

The EPA wants to cut the allowable threshold for ground-level ozone to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, down from the current 75 parts per billion.

It is also taking comments from the public on possibly lowering down to 60 parts per billion the standard for ozone, a byproduct of many pollutants that come from burning fossil fuels.

The American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other public health and medical groups lobbied for the agency to settle in the lower part of the range it had considered.

In order for states to clean up their air and comply with the new rules, they might have to limit development and operation of certain energy-intensive industries that use fossil fuels, like refineries and manufacturers.

Reports of the planned rule were published late Tuesday, leading to criticisms from the American Chemical Council and from Inhofe, who said that EPA’s proposal would wreck the economy.

Many business representatives touted a report commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers concluding that at 60 parts per billion, the rule would cost the United States $270 billion a year, making it the most expensive regulation in history.

But the EPA is mandated to consider only public health when setting the standard and cannot take cost into consideration.

McCarthy sought to ward off criticisms surrounding costs in her Wednesday column.

“Special-interest critics will try to convince you that pollution standards chase away local jobs and businesses, but, in fact, healthy communities attract new businesses, new investment, and new jobs,” she said.

This story was updated at 10:02 a.m.