AIR POLLUTION:

Industry, enviro groups try to sway EPA on smog standard

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Industry and environmental groups sparred at a public hearing here today over U.S. EPA's planned reconsideration of the George W. Bush administration's 2008 smog standard.

Roger McClellan, who chaired the panel of EPA science advisers during George H.W. Bush's presidency, urged agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to drop the smog proposal "since the premise on which it was advanced is flawed." The American Petroleum Institute paid McClellan to testify.

Environmental and public health advocates, meanwhile, warned EPA that failing to follow through on tightening smog limits would have devastating effects on public health and ecosystems.

At issue is EPA's proposed strengthening of the health-based "primary" standard for ozone within a range of 60 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) when averaged over an eight-hour period. The George W. Bush administration had tightened the limit from 84 ppb to 75 ppb in 2008, even though its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) had recommended a 60 ppb to 70 ppb standard (Greenwire, Jan. 7).

EPA also proposed a separate "secondary" standard aimed at protecting vegetation and ecosystems, including parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas within the range of 7 to 15 parts per million-hours. The agency's science advisers recommended a separate secondary standard prior to the release of the 2008 rule, but the Bush EPA ultimately issued identical primary and secondary limits.

"Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier," Jackson said as EPA released the draft rule last month.

But McClellan, who chaired CASAC from 1988 to 1992, accused EPA of confusing scientific and policy decisions when deciding to reconsider the 2008 rule. CASAC's suggestion that former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson adopt a standard no higher than 70 ppb was "trumpeted as scientific advice," McClellan said, while "this was in reality a blending of science and policy."

EPA's resources would be better utilized by proceeding with its next ozone review, which is already under way, McClellan said. If Jackson feels compelled to reconsider the standard, he added, she "should not be swayed by policy preference outcomes advocated by CASAC or others."

Howard Feldman, API's director of regulatory and scientific affairs, said that although his group paid McClellan to testify, his views were his own. API opposes tightening the 2008 smog rule.

API and other industry groups argued there is a lack of scientific evidence to justify tightening the standard.

"The current ozone [National Ambient Air Quality] standard is working well and will continue to protect public health in the future," said David Friedman, director of environmental affairs for the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

"There is certainly no scientific justification for lowering the standard beyond the level EPA began implementing in 2004," Friedman added. "Neither the 2008 review nor the most recent ozone studies justify lowering the standard based on the health effects of exposure."

Lorraine Gershman of the American Chemistry Council said her organization supports peer-reviewed sound science and would support a new standard if the science demonstrated that it was justified. However, "we continue to believe that the scientific evidence does not support the further lowering of the ozone standard at this time," she said. "Instead, EPA and the states should focus on fully implementing and attaining the existing ozone standard before adopting any lower standards."

Pushing for tighter limits

Despite the claims by industry groups, the George W. Bush administration's smog standards failed to protect public health and the environment, said David Baron, managing attorney of Earthjustice's Washington, D.C., office.

"EPA's own science advisers unanimously said that they weren't strong enough," Baron said.

Last year, a federal court ruled that the Bush administration violated the law by disregarding its science advisers' recommendations on a standard for fine particle pollution, Baron said. "The science showing that the current ozone standard isn't strong enough is just as compelling as in that case," he added.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA does not have the option of allowing a certain level of adverse effects to continue, Baron said, and there is evidence of harm at and even below the 60 ppb standard at the bottom end of EPA's proposal.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups are urging the agency to adopt the lowest recommended limit of 60 ppb and to adopt a secondary standard to protect ecosystems.

"We are going to ask them to set the standards at the strictest possible level for as simple a reason as ozone makes you sick, and ozone can kill you," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

Smog forms when a mixture of pollutants from industrial facilities, power plants, motor vehicles and other sources reacts in sunlight. It can cause respiratory problems, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain, and leads to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

EPA estimates that setting a standard at 60 ppb would avoid between 4,000 and 12,000 premature deaths per year in 2020; a standard at 70 ppb would avoid between 1,500 and 4,300 in 2020.

Joy Oakes, director of the National Parks Conservation Association in the mid-Atlantic region, also called on the agency to adopt its proposed secondary standard for smog.

"Unhealthful ozone is of concern not only for human health, for the visitors to national parks and the people who work there," she said, "but also for the forests, plants and animals, who when the ozone is high or even moderate for humans, these plants are vulnerable to damage."

"The science has long supported setting a secondary standard to protect forests and natural areas," Oakes said. "We urge them to move forward."

About 50 speakers were signed up to speak at the hearing.

EPA plans to issue its final standards by Aug. 31.

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