Energy & Environment

EPA declines to tighten air quality standard for smog

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday declined to tighten air quality standards for smog, despite calls from environmental and health advocates for a stricter standard. 

The EPA finalized its decision to retain the Obama-era air quality standard for ozone, the main component of smog, of 70 parts per billion (ppb).

In the stratosphere, the ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet light from the sun, but at ground level it can worsen health conditions like bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

“This decision fulfills the Trump administration’s promise to streamline the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] review process,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters. 

Environmental advocates have called for tightening the standard to 60 ppb or lower, and have pointed to studies linking adverse health impacts of exposure to ozone at concentrations lower than the current standards. 

“Air pollution kills thousands of people each year and failing to set a more protective standard means that the health of millions of Americans is threatened,” said Paul Billings, the American Lung Association’s national senior vice president for advocacy. 

When the standards were first proposed during the Obama administration, an EPA analysis showed that the 60 ppb ozone standards could have prevented 3,900 deaths linked to long-term exposure while just 680 deaths would have been prevented under the 70 ppb standard. 

Wheeler argued, however, that the current standard for ozone is in line with the science.  

“I looked at it just like Gina McCarthy did in 2015,” he said, referring to the EPA administrator at the time, who has recently been named a climate adviser to President-elect Joe Biden. “I think the 70 is in keeping with where the science is today.”

Billings said that setting the right standard is key because it sets goals for pollution cleanup efforts and also allows the public to be informed about the levels at which smog is harmful to their health. 

“If you’re shooting at the wrong goal, you’re not going to get to where you need to be to protect public health,” he said. 

Critics have also raised objections about the process, including what they view as a bias on the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). 

“You would never have a chair who has already taken a position on this,” said Reagan-era  assistant EPA administrator Bernard Goldstein, referring to a 2015 opinion piece by CASAC’s chair arguing against tighter ozone standards. 

It has also been reported that the agency canceled plans to put together a group of advisors to help assess ozone limits, leading to additional accusations of bias. 

Wheeler argued that not putting this group together was a time-saver that helped the agency get the standard done within five years, as required by the Clean Air Act. 

“In the past, when we haven’t met the five-year deadline we were sued,” he said. “That’s what we were trying to get away from were the lawsuits.”

Tags Andrew Wheeler Gina McCarthy Joe Biden

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