Obama administration updates smog standard, disappointing both right and left

The downtown Los Angeles skyline is seen from a freeway Wednesday, April 28, 2010. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday updated its standard on how much ozone -- smog -- will be allowed in the air.
The downtown Los Angeles skyline is seen from a freeway Wednesday, April 28, 2010. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday updated its standard on how much ozone -- smog -- will be allowed in the air. AP

The Obama administration on Thursday said it was tightening the allowable limit of ozone in the air, a bid to curtail the problem of asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The move, which came after strong opposition from industry groups and Republicans on Capitol Hill, also disappointed some environmental and medical groups, who wanted the limits dropped even more.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made the move Thursday afternoon, finalizing a proposed rule that was floated last year.

The EPA’s new standard for ground-level ozone– known as smog – will be 70 parts per billion, as measured by air-quality monitors. That’s a drop from the current 75 parts per billion, a standard that was set in 2008.

“Put simply – ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a prepared statement. “Our job is to set science-backed standards that protect the health of the American people.”

According to the EPA, states will have time to meet the new standard -- to between 2020 and 2037, depending on the severity of their ozone problem.

Ozone forms in the atmosphere when emissions of nitrogen oxides and other compounds from automotive and industrial sources bake in the sun. It leads to poor air quality and warnings for at-risk people – children and the elderly among them – to stay indoors. Among other things, ozone exposure can cause respiratory problems such as difficulty breathing and airway inflammation.

By reducing the level of ozone in the air, the EPA said it hopes to better protect both Americans’ health and the environment.

Based on its proposal from last year, the EPA had been exploring a standard of somewhere between 65 and 70 parts per billion – and many advocates pushed them to go even lower than that.

But groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers strongly resisted a reduction in the current standard. On Thursday, the group’s president and CEO, Jay Timmons, called the new standard “overly burdensome, costly and misguided. … The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers.”

Setting the safest recommended standard would have saved almost 6,500 lives and avoided nearly 1.5 million more asthma attacks per year than the smog pollution level the administration has chosen.

John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council

On the other side of the issue, environmental, health and other advocacy groups resisted the new standard for not going far enough.

Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, did say in a statement that the new standard “offers significantly greater protection than the previous, outdated standard.” He also urged members of Congress to defend the Clean Air Act against “any attacks that would block, weaken or delay life-saving protections from ozone pollution.”

But, he added: “The level chosen of 70 parts per billion (ppb) simply does not reflect what the science shows is necessary to truly protect public health. … The EPA’s independent scientific advisors reviewed the evidence and concluded that a level of 60 ppb would provide more public health protection than a standard of 70 ppb.”

He said that medical and health groups had pushed for the 60 parts per billion standard.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s leading environmental groups, called the new standard “insufficient to protect public health.”

John Walke, a senior attorney and director of the organization’s Clean Air Program, said the new standard “will provide real health benefits compared to today’s unsafe level of 75 ppb.”

But he added that by setting a health standard that does not adequately protect Americans against harmful levels of smog pollution, President Barack Obama “has missed a major opportunity.”