WASHINGTON, Nov. 26, 2014 – The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed strengthening air quality standards, saying the health benefits of fighting ground-level ozone, or smog, “will significantly outweigh the costs.”

The EPA is proposing lowering the standards from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a range of 65 to 70 ppb. The agency will also accept comment on a level as low as 60 ppb. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to revisit air quality standards every five years. This last review was in 2008, when the current 75 ppb standard was set.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the new standards are based on more than 1,000 new studies published since the last update that show the current threshold can still pose serious health risks. The American people “deserve to know the air we breathe is safe,” McCarthy said in a release.

"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,” McCarthy said. “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.”

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, EPA explained. Those most at risk from breathing air containing ozone include people with asthma, children, older adults, and those who are active or work outside.

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 750 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 through cleaner air, many of these figures will be reduced with a financial benefit by 2025 of $6.4 billion to $13 billion at 70 ppb, and $19 billion to $38 billion at 65 ppb. The agency said the costs would be lower at both thresholds by 2025 -- $3.9 billion at 70 ppb and $15 billion at 65 ppb.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized the plan. It said the new proposal is “another example of rushed rulemaking by a federal agency” that is “based upon incomplete science and incorrect assumptions.

“Additionally, the EPA has failed to consider key factors in its review of the standard, including the impact of international transport on U.S. ozone levels, the economic impact of lowering the standard, and background levels,” Bill Kovacs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for the environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “The agency should withdraw any proposal to lower the standard until the existing ozone standard (set in 2008) has been implemented fully, and these factors have been completely assessed.”

Depending on the severity of their ozone problem, different regions of the country would have until 2020 to 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. Nationally, from 1980 to 2013, average ozone levels have fallen 33 percent. South Dakota Sen. John Thune said the proposed regulation "could be the most expensive regulation in history," and that the agency should address problems in metropolitan areas before imposing regulations that could be harmful to rural America. 

"With nearly 9 million Americans still struggling to find work and make ends meet, the last thing the president should be proposing is a regulation that will have a devastating impact on jobs and energy prices for those who can afford it the least," Thune said in a statement. "Major metropolitan areas in states like California and New York - where smog is the worst - cannot meet the existing standard even after years of non-compliance. We should be targeting these problem areas before devastating rural economies in states with cleaner air." 

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 said it will issue final ozone standards by October 1, 2015.


Story updated at 11:45 EST. 

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