National Parks and Hundreds of Communities Join Smog List

Bush administration recognizes problem, yet weakens implementation


Cat Lazaroff, Earthjustice 202-667-4500

The Bush administration issued a pair of new rules this week intended to reduce the air pollution that makes it unhealthy to breathe in nearly one in five U.S. counties, and the haze that clouds the skies over many of our national parks and wilderness areas. Unfortunately, both rules fall well short of the measures needed to protect public health and improve visibility in natural areas.

New Ozone Standard Implementation a Disappointment “EPA’s rule implementing the 1997 ozone standard makes progress in some respects, but overall is a disappointment,” said Howard Fox, the Earthjustice attorney who represented a coalition of environmental and public health groups in the lawsuit that led to the new ozone designations.

The reason EPA issued the new ozone standard in 1997 was that the old one wasn’t protective enough. Based on an extensive array of scientific studies, EPA concluded that ozone is still harmful to people’s health, even at levels meeting the less protective 1979 standard. Health effects at issue include asthma attacks, hospitalization for respiratory ailments, coughing, wheezing, and damage to lung tissue. To address these effects, EPA in 1997 issued a stronger, more protective ozone standard.

“In essence, EPA has forgotten the point of the whole exercise,” Fox said. “Unfortunately, EPA’s implementation rule loses track of the key public health need underlying the new, more protective smog standard.”

The ozone rule was intended to address two key kinds of areas:

1. Areas that had previously been designated nonattainment for violating the 1979 standard, and were also designated on April 15 for violating the 1997 standard.

In an upside-down approach, the agency’s strategy for implementing the more protective 1997 standard in the nation’s smoggiest major metropolitan areas allows less aggressive cleanup action in the near term than was required under the laxer 1979 predecessor standard. In fact, EPA’s rule allows relaxation of existing anti-smog requirements in some of the nation’s most polluted cities.

“Weaker action to implement a stronger standard? It just doesn’t add up, and certainly doesn’t do justice to the asthmatics and other ozone-sensitive people who have been waiting decades for relief,” said Fox.

2. Areas that were not in violation of the 1979 standard, but are violating the more protective 1997 standard.

Many of the counties designated yesterday as violators of the 1997 standard are ones that had not previously been cited as violators of the more lenient 1979 standard. These areas were not previously in “nonattainment” status, and many are now being called upon for the first time to take steps to attain a national ozone health standard.

“Unfortunately, EPA’s approach for these counties ignores the lessons of history,” Fox said. “The agency’s rule is short on specifics and long on delay.”

The new rule gives most smoggy cities five to ten years to meet the new health standard without requiring them to adopt the strong anti-smog measures required under the pre-existing standard. Without a more specific game plan, cleanup is likely to be delayed by many years. Breathers will continue to suffer health effects that could be prevented by tried-and-true, cost-effective cleanup measures.

Earthjustice attorneys litigated on behalf of environmental and public health groups to require the EPA to designate nonattainment areas under the new 1997 ozone standard.

Parks, Wilderness Areas May Stay Hazy

The new rule intended to address haze in national parks and wilderness areas is similarly flawed.

According to the National Park Service, human-caused air pollution impairs visibility in national parks and wilderness areas almost constantly. Average visual range — the farthest a person can see on a given day — in most of the western US is now about one-half to two-thirds of what it would be without man-made air pollution.

Under the terms of a settlement negotiated in August 2003, the federal government was required to propose limits on the air pollution that clouds the skies of national parks and wilderness areas by April 15, 2004. The settlement requires EPA to adopt final rules by early 2005 to curb emissions from aging factories and power plants that now obscure scenic vistas in places such as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Big Bend, Acadia, Sequoia, and Yosemite national parks.

“Although this is an important step forward,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron, who helped to negotiate the settlement that led to the new rules, “we’re concerned that the proposal gives states too much discretion to exempt industries from strong pollution limits.”

“If states are given too much discretion to exempt individual plants, we won’t clean up dirty air in the parks,” Baron said, noting that scientists have learned that the haze in the parks is often due to the combined impact of pollution from multiple industrial plants. “The rules also continue to let states delay meeting haze cleanup targets based on vague claims that requiring compliance would be ‘unreasonable’. Earthjustice favors clear, enforceable haze cleanup requirements, so that we won’t have to wait for generations to breathe clean air in the parks.”

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