Obama admin to strengthen ozone standard

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2015

U.S. EPA will tighten the national ozone standard to 70 parts per billion, the upper end of the range the agency proposed last November, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on the rule.

The current ozone standard is 75 ppb, which was set by the George W. Bush administration in 2008. EPA had been under a court-ordered deadline to sign the new standard no later than today.

EPA said in an online video it’s strengthening the standard “based on what the science tells us is necessary to protect the health of Americans.”

Ground-level ozone is a key ingredient in smog and forms when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in sunlight. Ozone exposure has been linked to adverse health effects such as reduced lung function and asthma exacerbation, particularly in children and the elderly.

“Less smog means fewer lives lost too soon, fewer asthma attacks, fewer emergency room visits, fewer sick days for working families and schoolchildren,” EPA says in the video.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is scheduled to speak on the standard this afternoon alongside Grand Rapids, Mich., Mayor George Heartwell. The agency has also scheduled numerous calls with stakeholders throughout the day, according to sources.

Today’s decision came after the Obama administration, faced with upcoming elections, pulled the plug on setting a more stringent standard in 2011 — a move that greatly angered environmental groups.

EPA had been widely expected to choose 70 ppb as the final standard, but its decision is unlikely to make anyone happy. Expect lawsuits to follow (Greenwire, Sept. 29).

Green groups had pushed for a new standard no higher than 60 ppb, arguing that studies have linked adverse health effects with ground-level ozone concentrations above that level. Last year, EPA’s own science advisers recommended a new standard in the range of 60 to 70 ppb, noting that the 70 ppb limit was probably not strong enough to protect public health as the Clean Air Act required.

In a statement today, Earthjustice slammed the administration for choosing a “weak” standard.

“This weak-kneed action leaves children, seniors, and asthmatics without the protection doctors say they need from this dangerous pollutant,” said David Baron, managing attorney at Earthjustice.

Business and industry groups, on the other hand, had waged an aggressive and expensive campaign against a tighter limit, calling on EPA to retain the 75 ppb standard. They warned that a lower limit would come with high compliance costs and questioned the science behind EPA’s contention that the existing standard was no longer adequate to protect public health.

But EPA says most counties that monitor their air quality will meet the new standard by 2025 thanks to a variety of air regulations that are already in place.

“Clean air and a healthy environment help to strengthen our economy,” the agency said.

The National Association of Manufacturers, one of the most vocal critics of a tighter standard, today said that EPA had avoided the “worst-cased scenario” with a 70 ppb limit but still called the final action “misguided.”

“Make no mistake: The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America — and destroy job opportunities for American workers,” NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said. “Now it’s time for Congress to step up and take a stand for working families.”

EPA’s congressional critics are girding to oppose the agency’s final action. Two House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees are planning to hold a hearing next Wednesday on the new limit.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to Twitter this morning to warn that EPA’s rule threatened to be the “most expensive regulation in history.”

John Walke, senior attorney and clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, vowed to defend against attempts to change the Clean Air Act in Congress while pushing for a tighter standard.

“We will fend off political attacks that threaten the Clean Air Act’s guarantee of safe air based on medical science alone,” he said. “And we will keep fighting for ozone limits that adequately protect Americans’ health.”