AIR POLLUTION:

EPA plans late-December release for new ozone standard

Though the Obama administration was initially expected to issue stricter smog standards this summer, U.S. EPA now says it may not be ready to release a final rule until New Year's Eve.

EPA is currently reconsidering the George W. Bush-era changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone, which is the main component in smog. A final decision is now scheduled to come by Dec. 31, the agency told a federal court yesterday.

"Completing this rulemaking has taken longer than anticipated," the filing says. "EPA expects that this process will take an additional two months."

It is the second time EPA has taken an extension on the smog standard. This summer, as the August deadline neared, the agency told the court it was planning to issue a final rule "on or about the end of October."

Some close observers suggested that the agency would wait until after the election to avoid a political backlash. The revision process has prompted a war of words between businesses, which would need to spend billions of dollars on new pollution controls, and advocacy groups, which are urging EPA to issue rules that protect the public from respiratory problems and heart disease.

A coalition of public health and environmental groups launched an ad campaign last week that accused "big polluters" of "dumping millions of dollars into a lobbying war against America's clean air laws." They were responding to political pressure from industry groups, which say the Obama administration should not have second-guessed the Bush-era decision at a time of economic hardship.

"These regulations are going to slow down business expansion and our economic recovery and keep more Americans unemployed than would otherwise be the case," said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, during a conference call with reporters last week (E&ENews PM, Oct. 27).

During the previous administration, EPA's scientific advisers suggested a standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion. The agency chose a limit of 75 ppb, down from the previous level of 84 ppb, but the Obama administration has signaled that it will issue stricter standards.

In January, EPA proposed setting the standard between 60 and 70 ppb, in line with scientists' recommendations.

"EPA is working hard to finalize an ozone standard that is based on what the science tells us about this threat to Americans' health," said EPA press secretary Brendan Gilfillan in a statement last month. "We will announce the final rule as soon as it is ready -- this is an important and complex rulemaking and EPA is working to ensure we get it right."

By setting a nationwide limit on the acceptable amount of smog, the ozone standard is a key driver of air quality programs across the country. State and local officials, who will be tasked with achieving the agency's goal, do not mind waiting a little longer if it leads to a better rule, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

"If the delay is because EPA needs a bit more time to put its house in order, not only with regard to where it's setting the standard but also how it's writing the final implementation guidance, states will accept that delay," Becker said.

"In the grand scheme of things, an extension from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 isn't a huge deal. It's important however, because this is a huge health issue, that they address this in a timely manner and do not allow it to be delayed indefinitely."