EPA's New Ozone Limit: Not Enough?

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Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood enveloped in smog.

It might be a sign of how deeply environmentalists have come to distrust the Bush Administration that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could announce that he was actually tightening standards on air pollution — and still get hammered by green groups. That's exactly what happened Wednesday, when EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson limited the allowable level of ozone — the air pollutant that triggers smog — to 75 parts per billion. That's tighter than the current limit of effectively 84 parts per billion, but it's still much higher than the level recommended by the EPA's own scientific advisers, who suggested limiting ozone in the air to an average of between 60 and 70 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. Johnson told reporters that he had "made the most health-protective eight-hour ozone decision in the nation's history." Technically true, but environmental and health groups focused on the fact that Johnson had given no justification for ignoring scientific consensus for a lower limit. "Stephen Johnson is the only person right now who believes this level is adequate to protect human health," says John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program. "He hasn't offered any coherent explanation for why this happened."

The byproduct of nitrogen oxides and other chemicals released into the air by vehicles and power plants, ozone is one of the most pernicious pollutants in the air — and one of the hardest to get rid of. Even today, tens of millions of Americans live in areas that can't meet the current limit of 84 parts per billion, and suffer from the effects of ground-level ozone: an inflamed respiratory tract, worsened cardiovascular disease, asthma, even premature death. "It's an irritant, and it literally burns the inside of your lungs," says Dr. John Balbus, chief health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who notes that children will suffer the most. Balbus says that the EPA's own studies say that bringing down the ozone limit to 65 parts per billion — the halfway point of the range suggested by science — would prevent 2,330 deaths, 4,600 emergency room visits and 1,300,000 lost school days by the year 2020, compared to the current regulation. Nor is a limit of 65 parts per billion unachievable. The European Commission mandates ozone levels at no more than 61 parts per billion, and even Canada has lower limits than those the EPA will adapt. "Smog levels have to be a lot lower before we'll be able to breathe easily in the U.S.," says Walke.

So why did the EPA decide to ignore its own scientific advisers? Politics may have played a role — as did economics. The Washington Post reported that White House officials wanted to take the costs of tightening the ozone regulations into consideration when drafting new limits — something that's expressly forbidden by the Clean Air Act, which says that public health can be the only base for new regulations. The Supreme Court affirmed that fact in 2001, but in issuing the new rule, the EPA's Johnson called on Congress to rewrite the law to allow regulators to take the cost of controlling pollution into consideration. The Clean Air Act "is not a relic to be displayed in the Smithsonian but a living document that must be modernized to continue realizing the results," said Johnson.

Controlling pollution isn't cheap. Nearly 350 counties in the U.S. currently violate the new standard of 75 parts per billion, and reaching that standard will take $8.8 billion a year according to the EPA, though that number doesn't factor in the health savings that result from reduced pollution. But green groups and Democrats in Congress were livid at Johnson's suggestion, viewing it as a thinly veiled effort by the Bush Administration to weaken the country's environmental regulations. "The Bush Administration would have us replace clean air standards driven by science with standards based on the interests of polluters," Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in a statement. "It is outrageous."

Democratic control of Congress means that any change in the Clean Air Act is very unlikely, and environmental groups have already said that they will sue the EPA to fight for stronger regulations in court. But many worry that Johnson's decision is a sign that the Bush Administration will use its final year in office to gut environmental protection whenever possible. Johnson is already under investigation for his decision in December to refuse California's routine request to impose tighter greenhouse gas regulations on its auto industry, and the EPA has come under intense criticism for failing to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant — despite a Supreme Court decision last year giving the agency the authority to do so. Even when new regulations are issued, like the ozone limits, they tend to be delayed — the revision of the ozone standard is more than five years overdue. "It's hard to see these decisions as anything other than politically motivated," says Walke. "They can do a lot of damage in a year." For environmentalists — and those who just want to breathe easily — that's a scary thought.