Tuesday, January 30, 2007

EPA scientists call for tougher smog standards

EPA Staff to Recommend Tougher Standards for Ozone
By Tina Seeley

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's staff is recommending the government toughen its standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, for public health reasons.

The agency is required to regularly review its air quality standards to keep up with new science.

An independent scientific panel recommended in October the standards be tightened. The official opinion of agency staff will be issued tomorrow, EPA said in a press release, and the agency will consider the recommendations before issuing a final decision in March 2008.

Agency staff will recommend a standard between 0.060 parts per million and below 0.08 parts per million. The current standard, promulgated in 1997, is at the 0.08 level. Staff said the new standard will provide greater health protection for sensitive groups, including asthmatic children and people with lung disease, according to an agency summary.

``It's a very big deal,'' said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group. ``These are national health standards for the most widespread air pollutant in America. These standards are absolutely critical because they are the heart and lungs of the Clean Air Act.''

Ground-level ozone is formed by a combination of pollutants, mostly hydrocarbons or volatile organic compounds, mixed with nitrogen oxides.

Cars, Power Plants

``The biggest contributors tend to be cars and trucks,'' said Jeff Holmstead, former assistant administrator for air and radiation at the agency. ``After that, probably power plants are big contributors of nitrogen oxides. Almost any kind of industrial facility emits something that contributes to ozone formation.''

A change in ozone standards will be ``a billions-of-dollars issue, in terms of economic impact,'' said Holmstead, now a partner with Bracewell & Giuliani LLP. ``In order to reduce ozone you've got to reduce both hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides pretty significantly. You're going to have to hit virtually everybody.''

The last time the agency toughened the standards, they were fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

``Virtually every big polluter is lined up to oppose these standards'' if they are made final by the agency, said O'Donnell. ``The final decision will almost certainly be challenged in court. They always are.''

Holmstead said the agency has not always done what staff has recommended. ``I wouldn't say it's a foregone conclusion now.''

Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson last year did not follow the recommendations of an independent scientific group on setting standards for fine particulate matter.

If ozone standards are tightened ``the majority of U.S. counties will fail'' to meet air-quality rules, Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents publicly traded utilities, said in an e-mailed statement. ``States will face some tough challenges in finding ways to meet more stringent requirements.''

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