Toughened ozone rule falls short of recommendation
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency toughened standards for ozone pollution on Wednesday, but these new requirements are more lax than the agency's own scientists recommended.
Stephen Johnson, the agency's chief, said he complied with the Clean Air Act and with scientific data in setting the new ozone standard at 75 parts per billion in ambient air in the United States. The previous standard was 80 parts per billion.
The EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recommended, however, a standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion, with the lower level suggested for children who are more vulnerable to ozone pollution, a prime component of smog.
Industries had urged the government to retain the higher standard, citing the high cost of meeting the new requirement.
"The regulation I signed today is compelled by the Clean Air Act and the most recent scientific data on the effects of ozone on human health," Johnson told reporters in a telephone briefing. "Since EPA last updated ozone standards ... scientific studies have indicated that ozone's health impacts are more significant and certain than we previously understood."
Unlike stratospheric ozone, which forms a protective layer high above Earth's surface, ground-level ozone can make it hard to breathe and aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions. It also can damage plants, making disease and reduced crop yields more likely.
People most vulnerable to lung problems from ozone pollution include children and teens, the elderly, those with asthma and other lung ailments and those who work or exercise outdoors.
INDUSTRY AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS OBJECT
"EPA has taken a baby step instead of the strong action doctors say is needed to protect our lungs," David Baron of the environmental group Earthjustice said in a statement.
The new standards came in response to a court-ordered deadline in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in 2003 on behalf of the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups.
Baron noted that the agency failed to set a separate ozone standard urged by its scientific advisors to protect vegetation from smog.
John Kinsman of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. electric companies, criticized the new standards as "the wrong call."
"Hundreds of counties haven't been able to meet the current standard set a decade ago, and moving the goal posts again will inflict economic hardship on these areas without speeding air quality improvement," Kinsman said in a statement.
In announcing the new ozone standards, EPA's Johnson urged a modernization of the Clean Air Act that would take costs, benefits and feasibility into account; the law currently cannot consider these factors, only the science.
He said 85 U.S. counties still have ozone levels higher than the old standard, and 345 counties would not meet the new standard.
While he said the first principle of the law was to improve public health, Johnson added, "I think it's important that issues such as benefits and costs and risk trade-offs and feasibility in making the decisions on how to clean the air are taken into consideration."
Said Frank O'Donnell of the group Clean Air Watch: "This would be a radical attack on the Clean Air Act. It is taking a page directly from the playbook of polluters and their most ardent supporters in Congress."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)