Energy & Environment

EPA declines to tighten smog standards amid pressure from green groups

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday did not propose more ambitious standards for reducing smog despite pressure from environmental groups and even some courts that had urged the agency to set more restrictive regulations on the pollutant.

The Monday proposal would retain the 70 part per billion (ppb) standard for ozone, commonly referred to as smog, set under the Obama administration. That standard has faced numerous lawsuits from environmental and health groups.

“Based on a review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisors, we are proposing to retain existing ozone standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a release.

That group of science advisers, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), faced heavy scrutiny in the first two years of the Trump administration after all its original members were replaced by either Wheeler or his predecessor Scott Pruitt.

“The cherry-picked CASAC gave the Administrator the answer he wanted to hear,” Chris Frey, a former director of CASAC, wrote on Twitter, saying the later review done by CASAC was “hamstrung/undermined.”

Ozone helps create a layer in the stratosphere to protect Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet light, but when it is at ground level, it can contribute to asthma attacks and other respiratory issues. 

Critics say the EPA’s latest proposal falls short of what is needed to protect health, and health and environmental groups have suggested a more restrictive standard of 60 ppb.

“EPA is effectively saying, ‘If it was good enough for Obama, it’s good enough for us,’ but that was basically their goal from day one,” said John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Walke said the agency is ignoring a growing body of evidence that shows ozone pollution is still harmful to health when present in concentrations higher than 60 ppb.

“The point of the scientific review isn’t to determine whether this was good enough then — it’s to decide what the science tells you should be done today in 2020,” he said.

A court on Friday said the EPA erred when it found five different states were meeting ozone regulations, while other cases from late last year said the EPA hasn’t done enough to limit cross-state air pollution.

“The agency is supposed to be answering a very simple question: What level of air pollution harms health?” Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, said of both the court rulings and the opportunity to update the standards.

“Fundamentally, a standard of 70 fails to do that,” he added.

Industry groups largely praised the proposal.

“At a time when we are facing record-breaking unemployment, a lower ozone standard could slow our economic rebound and threaten manufacturing competitiveness. We shouldn’t have to choose between environmental protection and a strong economy. Americans deserve both – especially during these unprecedented times,” the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement.  

Tags Andrew Wheeler Scott Pruitt

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