EPA proposes stronger smog standards for public health

Catching up on news from last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released new standards for ground-level ozone that will reduce the incidence and severity of various respiratory diseases. Click here for details on the standards.

Ground level or "bad" ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma. Ground level ozone can also have harmful effects on sensitive vegetation and ecosystems.

Current regulations allow ozone at 75 parts per billion. The new rules would lower that to a level between 65 and 70 parts per billion. Mark Drajem reported for Bloomberg News, "The EPA's independent science advisers this year recommended the administration set the standard at 60 to 70 parts per billion, and urged the agency to consider the lower end of that range."

After the jump I've posted the EPA's press release and excerpts from a commentary by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, along with some reaction by critics of the proposal. Predictably, some business groups say the new standards will be devastating for the economy. McCarthy pointed out that same dire warnings have accompanied every new environmental regulation for decades.

The Iowa Association for Business and Industry is concerned that the EPA proposal may be expensive for manufacturers. Data collected between 2011 and 2013 at various monitoring sites around Iowa indicate that ground-level ozone is already below 70 parts per billion at all tested locations. Some of the Iowa sites recorded levels below 65 parts per billion; others are slightly above that level. The EPA does not anticipate that any counties in Iowa will violate the new ozone standard by 2025. Counties with the worst smog problems, including many in California, will be given more time to comply with the new ozone standards.

U.S. EPA press release, November 26:

EPA Proposes Smog Standards to Safeguard Americans from Air Pollution

WASHINGTON-- Based on extensive recent scientific evidence about the harmful effects of ground-level ozone, or smog, EPA is proposing to strengthen air quality standards to within a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) to better protect Americans' health and the environment, while taking comment on a level as low as 60 ppb. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review the standards every five years by following a set of open, transparent steps and considering the advice of a panel of independent experts. EPA last updated these standards in 2008, setting them at 75 ppb.

"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk. It empowers the American people with updated air quality information to protect our loved ones - because whether we work or play outdoors - we deserve to know the air we breathe is safe," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "Fulfilling the promise of the Clean Air Act has always been EPA's responsibility. Our health protections have endured because they're engineered to evolve, so that's why we're using the latest science to update air quality standards - to fulfill the law's promise, and defend each and every person's right to clean air."

EPA scientists examined numerous scientific studies in its most recent review of the ozone standards, including more than 1,000 new studies published since the last update. Studies indicate that exposure to ozone at levels below 75 ppb -- the level of the current standard -- can pose serious threats to public health, harm the respiratory system, cause or aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and is linked to premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes. Ground-level ozone forms in the atmosphere when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds "cook" in the sun from sources like cars, trucks, buses, industries, power plants and certain fumes from fuels, solvents and paints. People most at risk from breathing air containing ozone include people with asthma, children, older adults, and those who are active or work outside. Stronger ozone standards will also provide an added measure of protection for low income and minority families who are more likely to suffer from asthma or to live in communities that are overburdened by pollution. Nationally, 1 in 10 children has been diagnosed with asthma.

According to EPA's analysis, strengthening the standard to a range of 65 to 70 ppb will provide significantly better protection for children, preventing from 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks and from 330,000 to 1 million missed school days. Strengthening the standard to a range of 70 to 65 ppb would better protect both children and adults by preventing more than 710 to 4,300 premature deaths; 1,400 to 4,300 asthma-related emergency room visits; and 65,000 to 180,000 missed workdays.

EPA estimates that the benefits of meeting the proposed standards will significantly outweigh the costs. If the standards are finalized, every dollar we invest to meet them will return up to three dollars in health benefits. These large health benefits will be gained from avoiding asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school days and premature deaths, among other health effects valued at $6.4 to $13 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 70 ppb, and $19 to $38 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 65 ppb. Annual costs are estimated at $3.9 billion in 2025 for a standard of 70 ppb, and $15 billion for a standard at 65 ppb.

A combination of recently finalized or proposed air pollution rules - including "Tier 3" clean vehicle and fuels standards - will significantly cut smog-forming emissions from industry and transportation, helping states meet the proposed standards. EPA's analysis of federal programs that reduce air pollution from fuels, vehicles and engines of all sizes, power plants and other industries shows that the vast majority of U.S. counties with monitors would meet the more protective standards by 2025 just with the rules and programs now in place or underway. Local communities, states, and the federal government have made substantial progress in reducing ground-level ozone. Nationally, from 1980 to 2013, average ozone levels have fallen 33 percent. EPA projects that this progress will continue.

The Clean Air Act provides states with time to meet the standards. Depending on the severity of their ozone problem, areas would have between 2020 and 2037 to meet the standards. To ensure that people are alerted when ozone reaches unhealthy levels, EPA is proposing to extend the ozone monitoring season for 33 states. This is particularly important for at-risk groups, including children and people with asthma because it will provide information so families can take steps to protect their health on smoggy days.

The agency is also proposing to strengthen the "secondary" ozone standard to a level within 65 to 70 ppb to protect plants, trees and ecosystems from damaging levels of ground-level ozone. New studies add to the evidence showing that repeated exposure to ozone stunts the growth of trees, damages plants, and reduces crop yield. The proposed level corresponds to levels of seasonal ozone exposure scientists have determined would be more protective.

EPA will seek public comment on the proposal for 90 days following publication in the Federal Register, and the agency plans to hold three public hearings. EPA will issue final ozone standards by October 1, 2015.

To view the proposal: http://www.epa.gov/glo/

From EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy's editorial announcing the new ozone standards:

In the U.S. today, one child in 10 already suffers from asthma, and ozone pollution makes things worse.

The economic costs: Missing work, feeling ill, or caring for a sick child costs us time, money, and personal hardship. When family health issues hurt us financially, that drags down the whole economy.

The good news is that if these proposed standards were finalized, every dollar we would invest to meet them would return up to $3 in health benefits (totaling up to $38 billion in 2025, and going up from there).

For our children, that means avoiding up to 1 million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks. Adults could avoid hundreds of emergency room visits for cardiovascular reasons, up to 180,000 missed work days, and 4 million days where people have to deal with pollution-related symptoms.

Special-interest critics will try to convince you that pollution standards chase away local jobs and businesses, but, in fact, healthy communities attract new businesses, new investment, and new jobs.

When EPA revised ozone standards in 1997, critics claimed "new air quality regulations...will destroy jobs, hike business costs, and exact painful lifestyle changes while doing little to improve health..." None of that ever came true.

Of the counties that didn't meet the 1997 standard back then, 90% now comply. Overall, since 1980, ozone pollution has decreased 33% nationwide. Simply put, the United States has never had to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment and we won't start now.

Critics often attempt to deny and discredit the science and exaggerate the costs of dealing with pollution. [...]

Critics play a dangerous game when they denounce the science and law EPA has used to defend clean air for more than 40 years. The American people know better.

In the 1970s, those same critics said EPA action to remove toxic lead from gasoline would put the brakes on auto production. Instead, blood lead levels in children worst affected have plummeted nearly 90% since 1976. And auto makers didn't fold, they flourished. Today, the number of cars rolling off American assembly lines reached its highest level in 12 years.

In the 1990s, those same critics said fighting acid rain would make electricity prices go up and our lights go out. They said industry would die "a quiet death." Instead, industry is alive and well, our lights are still on, and the health benefits of our acid rain program exceed costs 40 to 1.

Time after time, when science pointed to health risks, special interests cried the sky was falling. And time after time, EPA obeyed the law, followed the science, protected public health, and fortified a strong American economy.

Over four decades, we've cut air pollution by nearly 70%, while our economy has tripled in size. The sky never fell. Today's action follows that proven path.

From Mark Drajem's report for Bloomberg News:

Compliance will come at a high cost for power producers, chemical manufacturers, oil drillers and fuel suppliers. The EPA estimates businesses would need to spend $4.7 billion to $16.6 billion in coming decades, depending on which standard is selected when the rule becomes final next year. [...]

Industry groups again denounced the latest plan, arguing that the current standard is sufficient. Republicans, who take over the majority in both houses of Congress next year, vowed to provide "rigorous oversight" of the health and economic impacts of the plan. [...]

"We are concerned that EPA did not include 60 ppb in the range, though it was the clear recommendation of independent scientists as well as health and medical societies," Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, said.

The EPA's independent science advisers this year recommended the administration set the standard at 60 to 70 parts per billion, and urged the agency to consider the lower end of that range. [...]

Still, gas drillers and chemical makers criticized the plan, arguing it could curtail U.S. gas and oil development and the boost in manufacturing that has followed in its wake.

"Manufacturing growth could slow or stop in states that find themselves unable to meet a lower ozone standard," the American Chemistry Council said in a statement.

From Matthew Patane's report for the Des Moines Register,

In a statement, National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons said the draft regulation "threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America." Timmons also said a lower smog threshold could block businesses from acquiring the permits required to build new factories and other projects.

The Iowa Association of Business and Industry also has concerns about the proposal.

Nicole Crain, ABI's vice president of government relations, said the group is still reviewing the EPA proposal. She said lowering the emission threshold could increase costs for businesses, especially manufacturers, and prevent them from expanding.

Crain also said businesses are still trying to adapt to a slate of other new regulations.

"Businesses want to comply with the regulations, but there are so many coming down at one time that it's really difficult to comply," Crain said.

The EPA's proposal would also require Iowa officials to monitor for ground-level ozone for an extra month.

Currently, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has 15 monitoring sites around the state.

Between 2011 and 2013, average ozone levels at all of those sites varied between 61 and 69 parts per billion.

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