Reacting to the news that the Environmental Protection Agency today has published its decision to reaffirm air quality standards for ozone, Earthjustice called the move, "a cautious step in the right direction that needs to be finalized quickly." In what conservationists are calling a victory for public health, EPA published a proposed decision confirming 1997 standards for ozone despite industry attempts to weaken them. In effect, the decision rejects industry claims that ground-level ozone – or smog – is beneficial to humans and protects them from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The finding that it would be inappropriate to weaken the 1997 standards comes in EPA's long-awaited response to a May 1999 court-ordered remand in American Trucking v. Whitman, a case in which industry launched a multi-pronged challenge to the 1997 smog standards.
"Industry's efforts to confuse Americans into treating smog like sunblock is yet another dodge by polluters who don't want to clean up," said Howard Fox of Earthjustice, which represents American Lung Association in the case. "To protect the lungs of asthmatics and other vulnerable people, EPA's job is – as Shakespeare might have put it – to bury smog, not to praise it. The agency should move promptly to finalize its rejection of industry's ridiculous attempts to spruce up smog's image."
At issue are the 1997 national air quality standards for ozone. According to EPA estimates, these standards, once implemented, will prevent tens of thousands of occurrences of respiratory symptoms such as painful breathing, reductions of lung function, and asthma attacks – as well as many hospital admissions and emergency room visits. During EPA's deliberations on the 1997 standards, industry argued that controlling ground-level ozone – also known as tropospheric ozone – could actually harm public health by allowing more ultraviolet B sunlight to reach earth. In the 1999 American Trucking decision, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit directed EPA to consider the issue, although the court expressed no opinion on the matter.
"Opponents of the ozone health standard hope to use the UVB radiation issue to force EPA into 'paralysis by analysis' and delay implementing the standard," said John Kirkwood, CEO of American Lung Association. "The American Lung Association fully supports EPA's determination that speculative impacts from UVB radiation should not be used as an excuse to delay reducing unhealthy levels of ozone."
EPA originally scheduled today's proposed response for publication in January. However, in the wake of the January 20 memorandum issued by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card directing agencies to put a hold on most new regulations, the proposal was put off until today. A 60-day public comment period will now ensue.
"EPA officials have been tangling with this issue for more than two and a half years now," cautioned Fox. "It's great that they've finally put it behind them and indicated they're ready to move forward. We hope they won't delay in finalizing their decision, and that Americans will soon enjoy stronger protections against smog."
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