The Battle for the Air

The EPA will decide today whether to strengthen its smog standards

Megan Tady

The EPA decides today whether to take the word of scientists or lobbyists when it comes to setting standards for smog

In one corner, a coalition of public interest groups, scientists and academic advisors. In the other corner, industry lobbyists. 

The prize for the fight? The quality of our air. 

The showdown will take place today when, five years behind schedule, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to propose new primary eight-hour ozone ambient air quality standards, or smog standards. Scientists have argued that the standards for smog need to be strengthened to protect the public’s health, but industry lobbyists may be thwarting their plans. Frank O’Donnell, director of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, characterized the culminating battle in a press release: Now the moment of truth is at hand: will the EPA side with science and health, or with big polluters?”

Literally what is at stake here is the quality of the air that American’s will breathe,” O’Donnell says. These standards are designed, in at least theory, to represent the government’s most informed judgment about when the air is safe to breathe. If the government sets standards that are falling short of what science says it should be, than that means that people will be breathing unnecessarily dirty air well into the future.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set standards for ozone pollution. Currently, ozone level concentrations cannot exceed 0.08 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour period – a standard that has been in place since 1997.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson will decide today if the EPA will revise or retain the current ozone standards. The Agency’s plan will be released for public comment, and the final ruling will not be made until March 2008.

As the decision looms, public interest groups, independent EPA scientists and advisors, and even EPA’s own staff have been pointing to a growing stack of evidence as an impetus for tightening ozone standards. Scientists and public health officials fear that keeping the current standard would put people at risk for increased respiratory problems, asthma exacerbations and even mortality. 

In January, an EPA staff paper recommended revising the ozone level to a range between 0.080 ppm to 0.060 ppm. The EPA wrote, The overall body of evidence on ozone health effects clearly calls into question the adequacy of the current standard.”

On the tail of the staff paper, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) pushed for even tougher standards, unanimously advising Johnson to change the standard to 0.070 ppm or below. The CASAC, comprised of independent environmental health and medicine experts, cited overwhelming scientific evidence” for its recommendation.

The EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee also appealed to Johnson in March to set the proposed standard at 0.060 ppm – the lowest range offered by the staff paper – in order to afford greater protection to children.” There are currently more than six million asthmatic children in the United States.

In April, dozens of scientists, doctors and public health professionals signed a letter to Johnson expressing strong support” for tougher standards to a level that reduces the health burden experienced by the nation’s population as the result of exposure to ozone air pollution.”

Jonathan Levy, an associate professor of Environmental Health and Risk Assessment at Harvard who signed the letter to Johnson, says, Certainly having tightened standards would reduce [the impacts of ozone pollution], which would lead to some noticeable public health improvements.” 

The American Lung Association and the group Environmental Defense also support tougher standards.

But just as proponents for stricter smog standards have escalated their fight, industry lobbyists – representing a wide array of sectors, including mining, agriculture, automobile, and chemical, steel and pharmaceutical production – have been throwing their own jabs. Twice this month, industry lobbyists have met with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to discuss the standards. 

While industry groups have remained mostly mum about their demands, industry representatives made it clear in interviews published by the online environmental daily news service Greenwire last week that they may be pushing for the standard to remain the same. 

We believe it is important for EPA to leave all of its options open, and not to propose a particular standard until it has had time to solicit full public comment and get a firm understanding of the potential impacts associated with whatever standard is ultimately selected,” Mike Walls, managing director of the American Chemistry Council, told Greenwire. The Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, attended a meeting at the White House on June 8.

Chet Thompson, a partner at the law firm Crowell & Moring, which represents the chemical and electric utility sector, told Greenwire the EPA should solicit public comment on the full range of options… from the status quo all the way down to the more rigorous range proposed by others..”

Neither the American Chemistry Council nor Crowell & Moring returned calls seeking comment for this article. 

O’Donnell says that if the EPA agree[s] to take comment on the current standard, that’s a real concern because it might mean… they’re keeping open the option of not making them better at all.”

While the industry rhetoric is alarming to him, O’Donnell is also worried about other implications of the White House meetings. One meeting was attended by a representative of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and by representatives for the Council of Economic Advisers, which provides economic advice to the President.

That to me suggests that the industry people are trying to elevate the issue as a political issue,” O’Donnell says. It underscores our concern that this is really a clash between science and politics.” 

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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InThe​se​Times​.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.
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