WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2015 – The Obama administration released its final rule on ozone levels Thursday, tightening the air quality standard for smog-causing pollution that threatens public health, but also prompting criticism from the agriculture sector and manufacturers.

The new ozone standard – 70 parts per billion, down from 75 ppb set by the George W. Bush administration – “will substantially increase public health protection – there is absolutely no question about that,” EPA chief Gina McCarthy told reporters on a conference call. Breathing ground-level ozone harms lungs, causes breathing difficulties, worsens asthma, and increases the risk of permanent lung damage and premature death.

“The best available clinical data shows that 72 parts per billion is the lowest ozone exposure that causes adverse health effects in healthy, exercising adults,” McCarthy said. “But we must make sure that we’re protecting all people from this level of exposure, not just healthy adults, but everyone, including kids, people with asthma (and) older Americans.”

EPA estimates the 70 ppb standard will prevent 160,000 missed school days, 230,000 asthma attacks, and 660 premature deaths per year by 2025. By that year, the benefits of meeting the standard will be worth between $2.9 billion and $5.9 billion per year, EPA says. The benefits of lowering the ozone limit will outweigh the costs of implementation by as much as 4 to 1, said McCarthy.

Today’s announcement builds on existing regulations, tightening restrictions on manufacturing, energy producers and agriculture. Critics say the new limit will hurt farmers and ranchers and burden rural areas in particular, as many rural counties have ozone levels exceeding the 70 ppb standard.

According to EPA, while rural areas don’t usually produce as much ozone as urban regions, high levels of ground level ozone can periodically be transported to rural areas from upwind sources. Ground level ozone also tends to persist longer in rural areas.

McCarthy assured reporters that “only about 14 counties” outside of California – a state that has struggled to control smog for years – wouldn’t be able to meet the standard by 2025. The EPA most likely will make designations as to which counties are not in compliance with the standard in 2017, McCarthy added.

As of today, hundreds of counties are still not in compliance with the old standard of 75 ppb standard. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., put the number at 227. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the new standard puts 2,000 counties – almost two-thirds of the counties in the country – at risk of “being in non-attainment.”

“Since we have a lot of counties … that aren’t in compliance with the existing standard, why would we be lowering it?” Thune told Agri-Pulse.

Agriculture will be directly affected by the rule, as basic farming activities generate air pollution regulated under the ozone standard. For instance, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted during pesticide application and through livestock production. Mono-nitrogen oxides (NOx for short) are also emitted through soil microbial activity, burning biomass, and fuel combustion on farms.

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In March, the American Farm Bureau Federation said in its comments on the EPA’s proposed rule, that regulating these “ozone precursors” could curtail crop production by restricting pesticide application and animal agriculture activities. The rule’s impact on the automobile and energy sectors will also be passed down to farmers who depend on inexpensive energy, the nation’s biggest farm group argued.

In a release that accompanied the comments, Dale Moore, AFBF’s executive director of public policy, said that if EPA’s ozone proposals were implemented, U.S. agriculture “will create fewer jobs and be less competitive in the world market.” And the resulting “hardship” to producers and rural America “will be real and immediate, while the benefits are unverified and uncertain.”

In the proposed rule released in November, EPA suggested lowering the standard to 65 or 70 ppb. Advocates for the manufacturing, agriculture and energy industries argued lowering the standard at all would be unnecessarily costly, while environmentalists and climate change advocates hoped for an even stricter standard, at 60 ppb.

The National Association of Manufacturers today called the final rule “overly burdensome, costly and misguided.”

In a release, NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said, “After an unprecedented level of outreach by manufacturers and other stakeholders, the worst-case scenario was avoided. However, make no mistake: The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America – and destroy job opportunities for American workers.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement as well, suggesting that non-compliance with the standard “could halt business expansion and employment growth across the country” because the Clean Air Act authorizes the federal government to withhold transportation funding from noncompliant counties.

“We will now look at all available options to help ease the harmful impacts of this rule, which unfairly punishes localities and businesses that have been making great progress on air quality for decades,” said Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs.

McCarthy said she didn’t “anticipate sanctions being apart of the equation at all.” The EPA has only withheld funding in a handful of circumstances when states didn’t complete or get approvable on air quality mitigation plans in the past, she said.

“This standard is achievable,” she continued, “We know how to do this, we’ve done it before, and we’re on track to do it again.”


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