Environment & Science

EPA sets more stringent smog rules but still disappoints environmentalists

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 25:  Surface street traffic corsses above the US 101 freeway on April 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The nation's second largest city, Los Angeles, has again been ranked the worst in the nation for ozone pollution and fourth for particulates by the American Lung Association in it's annual air quality report card. Ozone is a component of smog that forms when sunlight reacts with hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions. Particulates pollution includes substances like dust and soot.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 25: Surface street traffic corsses above the US 101 freeway on April 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The nation's second largest city, Los Angeles, has again been ranked the worst in the nation for ozone pollution and fourth for particulates by the American Lung Association in it's annual air quality report card. Ozone is a component of smog that forms when sunlight reacts with hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions. Particulates pollution includes substances like dust and soot. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images

Listen to story

01:04
Download this story 0.0MB

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced new ozone standards that lower the permissible levels of smog in the air. The new standards reduce the limit from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb.

“This strengthened standard will improve public health protection across the country and provide the adequate margin of safety that’s required by law and that the science supports,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. 

The new standard is seen by many as a compromise. Last year, EPA said it was considering a new level somewhere in the range of 65 to 70 ppb, while agreeing to take comment on a level as low as 60 ppb.

Many politicians and environmental groups expressed disappointment with the new standards. They had hoped for reductions to 60 ppb.  

“Today’s action is a step in the right direction, but I believe following the science is important and I am disappointed that a more protective standard was not set," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) in a written statement.

John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the decision was a failure to protect the health of at-risk individuals.

“The Obama Administration unfortunately has decided to set health standards for smog pollution that do not protect Americans and especially do not protect our most vulnerable, including children, the elderly and persons with asthma,” Walke said. “We would save an additional 7,000 lives every year by setting the standard at the most protective level rather than the weakest level.”

Other environmental activists said that while they were disappointed by the new standard, they would work to protect it from attacks in Congress.

“While we believe that it should’ve been stronger and that the science would’ve fully justified the Administration in finalizing a stronger standard, we are very prepared to defend vigorously on the Hill any attacks on the Clean Air Act, or the ozone [...] process, or this particular update,” said Terry McGuire, Washington representative for the Sierra Club.

McGuire said the smog standards are important, because they reset guidelines that alert the public to negative air quality that may have health impacts.

“While it could’ve and should’ve been stronger — we believe 60 parts per billion — even lowering it down to 70 is going to give people in Southern California a better sense of what the air quality is outside so they can take the steps they need to take to protect their kids, their loved ones and make the best decisions for their family when it comes to going outside and being exposed to the air,” McGuire said.

Still, some industry groups praised the new standard.

Today’s announcement by EPA sets the bar higher for cleaner air," said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a non-profit group which represents diesel engine, vehicle and equipment makers.  "The increasing use of new generation of clean diesel technology will be an important asset for states in helping to achieve these more stringent standards.” 

Others, however, were no so sanguine

"The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers," said Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The California Chamber of Commerce did not return requests for comment.  

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the 70 ppb standard, saying it falls below 72 ppb, a level at which healthy, exercising adults see adverse effects such as decreased lung function and increased respiratory symptoms. She said insufficient evidence existed to justify lowering the standard to 60 ppb.

“While some studies have shown effects in adults at levels as low as 60 ppb, those studies do not show that these effects are harmful. Based on that uncertainty, I concluded that we should strive to reduce but not necessarily eliminate exposures to ozone concentrations as low as 60 ppb,” McCarthy said.

Meeting the new standards

McCarthy said the vast majority of the country would be able to meet the new standard. She said the EPA estimates only 14 counties outside of California would be out of attainment in 2025.

Ozone is byproduct of vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions that interact with solar heat.

Southern California has its own schedule for meeting ozone reduction targets because the region has some of the worst air quality in the nation. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has until 2023 to meet an 80 ppb threshold and 2031 to reach 75 ppb.

Already in 2015, the South Coast Air Basin has had 81 days that exceed the 75 ppb national standard. At the new 70 ppb standard, an additional 27 days would’ve been deemed out of attainment.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) said they expect their agency will have until 2037 to achieve the new standards. However, they said meeting the deadline would necessitate the federal government to adopt additional regulations.  

“US EPA is going to have to provide even greater assistance to us in our efforts to achieve clean air by taking action on pollution sources that are under its sole jurisdiction," Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, told KPCC.

He says EPA needs to adopt new measures to reduce pollution from interstate trucks, trains, ships, construction equipment and other pollution sources.

“We are, in our view, behind schedule but still have an opportunity to catch up and meet the standard on time, but it’s going to require political will and a great deal of financing to help operators of transportation sources to modernize their fleets,” Wallerstein said.