WASHINGTON – The air in hundreds of U.S. counties is simply too dirty to breathe, the government said Wednesday, ordering a multibillion-dollar expansion of efforts to clean up smog in cities and towns nationwide.
The federal action, which lowers ozone limits for the atmosphere, means that 345 counties will now be in violation of the health requirement, about four times as many as under the old rules. However, scientists said the change still isn't enough to significantly reduce heart and asthma attacks from breathing smog-clogged air, and they pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to issue even more stringent requirements.
Electric utilities, oil companies and other businesses had lobbied hard for leaving the smog rule alone, saying the high cost of lower limits could hurt the economy and noting that many communities still haven't met requirements set a decade ago.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, already a target of intense criticism over emissions linked to global warming and regulation of mercury from power plants, decided to take the middle ground when it comes to smog.
The EPA directed that air must contain no more than 75 units of ozone, or smog, for every billion units of air in order to be considered healthy, a reduction from the current maximum concentration of 80 to 84 parts per billion.
The new ozone standard will serve as the benchmark for state and local officials as they design pollution control measures. The EPA gives states years to meet the needed reductions, and areas with the worst pollution are likely to have as long as a decade to comply.
Ozone is a product of nitrogen oxides and other organic chemical compounds from motor vehicles, power plants, manufacturing and industrial plants. As it comes into contact with the sun's rays it is seen as the smog that hangs in much of the nation's air, aggravating respiratory problems for tens of millions of people.
An estimated 85 counties of the more than 700 that have monitoring stations exceed the current 80 parts per billion concentration, according to the latest EPA calculations. More than 320 counties exceed the tighter 75 parts per billion standard.
Health experts say smog under the current ozone regulation — even in areas where the limit is being met — causes hundreds of premature deaths among the elderly and health problems for thousands of young children and people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
An independent EPA advisory group of scientists last year said an ozone standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion is needed to provide an adequate margin of protection for the millions of people susceptible to respiratory problems. A similar conclusion was reached by a second advisory board on children's health.
In December, 111 health scientists, in a letter to Johnson, urged the EPA to adopt the science panels' findings.
Clean air advocates called the latest EPA reduction a move in the right direction — but also a political compromise that does not go far enough.
"It's disheartening that once again EPA has missed a critical opportunity to protect public health and welfare by ignoring the unanimous recommendations of its independent science advisers," said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, whose members will be developing programs to meet the federal air quality requirement.
Becker acknowledged that the tighter the standard the more difficult it will be to meet, but he said: "The public deserves the right to know whether the air they breathe is healthy."
In recent weeks, some of the most powerful industry groups in Washington have waged an intense lobbying campaign at the White House, urging the administration to keep the current standard.
Electric utilities, the oil and chemical industries and manufacturing groups argued that lowering the standard would require states and local officials to impose new pollution controls, harming economic growth, when the science has yet to determine the health benefits conclusively. The 80 parts per billion standard was enacted by the EPA in 1997, but its implementation was delayed for several years because of court challenges by industry groups.
"Hundreds of counties haven't been able to meet the current standard set a decade ago," said John Kinsman, senior director for environment at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents most of the country's power companies. "Moving the goalpost again will inflict economic hardship on those areas without speeding air quality improvements."
The EPA has said, based on various studies, cutting smog from 80 to 75 parts per billion would prevent between 900 and 1,100 premature deaths a year and mean 1,400 fewer nonfatal heart attacks and 5,600 fewer hospital or emergency room visits. A separate study suggests that tightening the standard to 70 parts per billion could avoid as many s 3,800 premature deaths nationwide.
The EPA by law is not supposed to consider economic cost in establishing the federal health standard for air quality. The agency has estimated that new pollution control efforts to comply with a 75 parts per billion standard would cost as much as $8.8 billion a year, although it acknowledged that does not take into account reductions in health care costs that could be even greater.