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Pro: New EPA rules should be even stronger for nation’s health

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Michael E. Kraft
November 19, 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Should the EPA move forward with its proposal to raise the nation’s air quality standards?”

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stronger national air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the chief component of urban smog.


Created when sunlight interacts with chemicals emitted from vehicles, power plants, chemical facilities, refineries and other sources, ozone is a long-recognized major health hazard. For that reason, public health and environmental organizations welcomed the new standards while many industry groups opposed them as too costly.


New scientific evidence makes clear that repeated exposure to even low levels of ozone can adversely affect human health. Even at moderate levels, ozone is dangerous to those with asthma or other respiratory conditions such as emphysema, and bronchitis, and it can contribute to premature death in people with either heart or lung disease.


EPA’s proposed new standards represent a distinct improvement over those adopted in 1997. They aim for an acceptable level of ozone between 0.070 to 0.075 parts per million, in contrast to the current level of 0.084 ppm for the so-called primary (human health) standard. Over time, with sufficient enforcement and appropriate action at the state and local levels, the air might become cleaner and healthier.


But the agency could have adopted more stringent standards. EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a panel of independent experts that included industry scientists, actually recommended unanimously that stronger standards be accepted.


The panel favored a level between 0.06 to 0.07, and EPA documents indicate that a level of 0.064 ppm could reduce ozone deaths by as much as 75 percent. Yet it is certainly possible that the agency will either keep the present, 10-year-old standard, or strengthen it only modestly.


Those who think cleaner air is just around the corner might be surprised to learn that it will be a while in coming. The new rule calls for state implementation plans only by 2013.


Moreover, the states do not have to achieve the new ozone standard until sometime between 2013 and 2030, depending on the severity of the problem in their areas. That is, some areas get as much as an additional 23 years to comply with the health standards. States such as California may find that their strategy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions also will help to meet the ozone standards because more efficient cars and power plants would result in fewer chemicals that turn into ozone.


Much of the debate on this proposed regulation turns on the expected costs and benefits. Yet in writing the Clean Air Act, Congress explicitly instructed the agency to base its decisions on public health and not on economic costs.


Realistically, calculations of costs and benefits are hard to ignore, and the EPA understandably conducted elaborate economic studies for this rule. It found a wide range of uncertainties over both the costs and benefits of differing ozone standards, making direct comparisons difficult. However, given the language of the Clean Air Act, the agency should favor achievement of real public health benefits over questionable economic costs.


Back in 1997, when the ozone standards were last changed by the Clinton administration, industry challenged the new rules in court in part based on their anticipated costs. They lost that battle.


This year, many of the same industries—electric utilities, chemical manufacturers, oil companies and automakers—are again opposed to the new EPA standards. We can be sure they are pressing their case hard within the Bush administration.


The EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, has stated that the current 0.084 standard is not good enough to protect human health. The nation should watch closely to see what kind of rule he and the Bush administration finally propose.


Let’s hope that the agency adopts a tough ozone standard that can really improve public health. We’ll know the answer by March of 2008.


Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Environmental Studies at UW-Green Bay. Readers may write to him at UWGB, 2420 Nicolet Drive, MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311.

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