WITH THE AIM OF BRINGING HEALTH BENEFITS to millions of Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new smog standards on Thursday.
The new standards would replace Bush-era rules that experts agree are inadequate to protect people from potentially dangerous air pollution.
The standards would be the strictest to date, and would be in line with the unanimous recommendation put forth in 2008 by the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which was composed of preeminent medical doctors, air quality experts, and public health professionals.
“EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, in a prepared statement. “Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease. It dirties our air, clouds our cities, and drives up our health care costs across the country.”
Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action, Jackson said, and will help millions of Americans “breathe easier and live healthier.”
In 2008, the Bush administration rejected the unanimous recommendations of the EPA’s expert advisory panel, and chose instead to set a weaker standard that would allow for more pollution.
Many medical professionals and public health officials protested that decision, and in 2009, in Pinedale, Wyoming, a grassroots organization called Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development—along with other local individuals—petitioned the Cowboy State to set its own smog standard that would be in line with what the scientists and medical professionals had recommended to the EPA.
That request was ultimately dropped by Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council, but the EPA’s newly proposed standard for smog would be roughly the same level of pollution control that the Wyoming petitioners had asked for.
Mary Lynn Worl, a retired teacher who was one of the Pinedale-area petitioners, said she was pleased with Thursday’s announcement.
“This is good news,” Worl said. “I’m personally very pleased that the EPA has taken this action. It certainly recognizes the scientific evidence that a stricter standard is needed to protect human health.”
Bruce Pendery, program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, agreed.
“The science is overwhelming on this point, and it’s great that we’ll finally have a national standard that reflects the science” Pendery said. “We need to keep in mind that this standard is all about protecting our health, especially that of elderly people, our children, and those with respiratory problems.”
THE PROBLEM WITH OZONE
Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, is especially dangerous to children and the elderly, and can cause a number of serious health problems, including aggravation of asthma and increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EPA.
Ozone can also harm healthy people who work and play outdoors. The damage caused to people’s lungs by ozone is thought to be immediate and irreversible.
The EPA on Thursday proposed to set the “primary” standard, which protects public health, at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million measured over eight hours. The current national primary standard is 0.075 ppm. Children are at the greatest risk from ozone because their lungs are still developing and they are most likely to be active outdoors, and they are more likely than adults to have asthma, according to the agency.
The EPA is also proposing to set a separate “secondary” standard to protect the environment, especially plants and trees. Secondary standards are set with the intention of protecting the “public welfare.” The seasonal standard the EPA is recommending is designed to protect plants and trees from damage caused by repeated ozone exposure, which can reduce tree growth, damage leaves, and increase susceptibility to disease, the agency explained in a media release.
OLD STANDARD WAS INADEQUATE
Administrator Jackson announced in September of 2009 that the Obama administration would reconsider the existing ozone standards, which the Bush administration set at 0.075 ppm. Since September, the EPA conducted a review of the science that guided the 2008 decision, including more than 1,700 scientific studies and public comments from the 2008 rulemaking process, according to the agency.
The EPA also reviewed the findings of the independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which unanimously recommended that standards be set in the ranges ultimately proposed on Thursday by the agency.
Depending on the level of the final standard, the proposal will yield health benefits between $13 billion and $100 billion, according to the EPA.
“This proposal would help reduce premature deaths, aggravated asthma, bronchitis cases, hospital and emergency room visits and days when people miss work or school because of ozone-related symptoms,” the agency wrote in is release. “Estimated costs of implementing this proposal range from $19 billion to $90 billion.”
This rulemaking is important for Wyoming, especially western Wyoming in the Pinedale area where ozone levels in excess of even the current, weaker, national standard have been recorded in recent years.
Ozone levels have gotten so high in the Pinedale area in recent winters that they have rivaled the worst bad-ozone days in major metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles. As a result, the state, with the support of Gov. Dave Freudenthal, has recommended that the EPA designate the Pinedale area in nonattainment with the national ambient air quality standard for ozone.
Ground-level ozone forms when emissions from industrial facilities, power plants, landfills, and motor vehicles react with sunlight.
The EPA will take public comment for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.
The photo above of natural gas flaring was taken by Linda Baker in the Upper Green River Valley, a rural area in western Wyoming that has experienced big-city like ozone pollution spikes in recent years as a result of a natural gas drilling boom.