The latest federal proposal promising to help clear up the nation's smog and soot problems will fall far short of its goal, environmental groups said today. A coalition of groups is submitting formal comments later today criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed "options" for implementing the 1997 8-hour ozone standard. The groups said the EPA proposal would actually weaken protections against smog.
Despite increasing evidence that long term exposure to lower levels of ozone can cause dangerous and sometimes permanent lung problems, the EPA is proposing to give polluted metropolitan areas more time and more loopholes to avoid taking the steps needed to protect public health.
"What we need is clean air, but what the EPA is offering is more delays and more opportunities to game the system," said Ann Weeks, Legal Director at CATF. "EPA was given the task of implementing strong new ozone standards, and they've come back with proposals that would leave the public breathing more smog -- not less."
In 1997, EPA put in place a more protective 8-hour ozone standards after scientific evidence demonstrated that the existing 1-hour ozone standard (in place since 1979) does not sufficiently protect children, asthmatics, and those active outdoors from the adverse health effects caused by ozone smog. These health effects -- which result not only from exposure to high levels of ozone over shorter time periods, but also from longer exposure to lower levels of ozone -- include decreased lung function, respiratory ailments, asthma attacks, hospital admissions and emergency room visits for respiratory problems, inflammation of the lungs, and possible long-term lung damage.
The EPA has finally published a proposal to implement the 8-hour ozone standards. Unfortunately, the proposal would create more problems than it would solve. Here are some of the weaknesses cited by the environmental coalition in comments to be submitted later today:
- EPA is proposing to offer more "flexibility" in meeting ozone standards, even in the smoggiest areas of the country, a move that would leave people in these areas breathing dirty air for years to come. For example, New York City, which has failed to meet the 1-hour standard by the deadline required by the Clean Air Act, would receive a new 8-hour classification, and be given yet another extension of time to get to cleaner air. The old deadline for compliance under the 1-hour standard would disappear entirely, along with already-adopted pollution control limits on transportation emissions, opening the door for additional sprawling development and new roadbuilding.
- EPA's proposal would allow some of the smoggiest areas in the country to avoid additional protective New Source Review requirements based on the 8-hour standard, letting power plants and other stationary pollution sources off the hook. Far from saving money, this proposal would simply shift the cost of dirty air away from polluters, by limiting the scope of clean up requirements imposed on industrial sources like factories and power plants.
- EPA's proposal would allow even the smoggiest areas in the country to receive lower 8-hour classifications -- and therefore less stringent control measure requirements under the 8-hour standard -- based only on predictions that areas will meet the 8-hour standard within three years. Under this "incentive feature," EPA would allow an area with air dirty enough to receive a "serious" classification to be downgraded to the next highest (moderate) classification, thereby avoiding more protective planning and pollution control requirements.
- Under EPA's proposal, areas with average smog concentrations high enough to warrant moderate or greater 8-hour ozone classifications, but not currently violating the less protective 1-hour standard, would be able to avoid Congressionally-mandated controls altogether. In addition, some areas with air quality at levels just violating the new standard would be given an additional 3-year pass, setting up the potential to avoid having to meet the standard until 2019.
"It's not enough to simply tighten standards for airborne pollution on paper," said Howard Fox, managing attorney at Earthjustice. "It's the details of implementation that will impact the health of people breathing the air in polluted areas. This implementation plan fails to provide any assurance that it will deliver real health benefits to people breathing dirty air."
"The nation needs a sensible, protective transition to the health-based smog standard that does not compromise our clean air safeguards, and EPA's proposal fails that goal," said Michael Replogle, Environmental Defense's transportation director. "EPA's proposal would eliminate successful transportation pollution safeguards in areas now subject to the one-hour ozone standard. These safeguards keep new highway projects from causing violations of air quality standards. Vast areas of the country that fail to meet the eight-hour smog standard would be subject to a weak implementation program that drops long-standing ozone control measures."
"New research is showing us ever more serious health effects from continued exposure to unhealthy levels of ozone. The ones who are suffering the most are those whose bodies make them least able to fight back -- children, senior citizens and those with asthma or other lung diseases," explained John L. Kirkwood, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Lung Association. "The risk to their health demands EPA take stronger steps than they've proposed so far."
"Over and over, researchers have shown that playing outside on smoggy days can trigger asthma in children," said Zach Corrigan, staff attorney at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "We can't afford to let polluters off the hook when our children's health is at risk."
"How are states supposed to meet the new stricter ozone standard using the weakened requirements EPA is proposing?" asked John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's like telling someone to dig a canal rather than a ditch, and then replacing his shovel with a spoon."
The coalition's comments are posted here (PDF, 319kb).
Backgrounder on EPA's 8 hour ozone standard (PDF, 86kb)
Chronology of the campaign to protect the public against ozone pollution (PDF, 148kb)
Ann Weeks, Clean Air Task Force, 617-292-0234
Howard Fox, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 203
Michael Replogle, Environmental Defense, 202-387-3500
John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202-289-6868
Zach Corrigan, U.S. PIRG Staff Attorney, 202-546-9707
Diane Maple/Janice Nolen, American Lung Association, 202-785-3355