U.S. EPA today proposed significantly tougher smog standards after reconsidering the George W. Bush administration's controversial 2008 regulations.

The draft rule released by EPA proposes to revise the two standards aimed at protecting public health and welfare to comply with recommendations made by the agency's science advisers. The Bush administration had rejected those suggestions when issuing the 2008 national air quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, drawing criticism and legal challenges from environmental and public health groups.

"EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. "Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier."

Smog forms when a mixture of pollutants from industrial facilities, power plants, motor vehicles and other sources react 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.

The agency proposed to set the health-based "primary" standard for smog within a range of 60 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) when averaged over an 8-hour period. The Bush administration tightened the ozone limits from 84 ppb to 75 ppb in 2008, despite scientific advisers' recommendations to issue a standard between 60 ppb and 70 ppb.

EPA is also proposing a separate "secondary" standard aimed at protecting vegetation and ecosystems, including parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. The draft rule recommends setting that standard within the range of 7 to 15 parts per million-hours. Such a standard would be based on a cumulative, weighted total of daily 12-hour ozone exposures to plants and crops over a three-month period. The agency's science advisers recommended setting a separate secondary standard prior to the release of the 2008 rule.

Former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was set to issue a more protective secondary standard in 2008, but the agency rewrote the regulations to include identical primary and secondary standards after the White House intervened on the eve of the agency's court-ordered deadline.

Enviro groups hail reversal

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers hailed today's proposal, saying that tighter ozone standards are long overdue. Industry groups, meanwhile, questioned the science behind the reconsideration and potential economic effects.

Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said this reconsideration "may be the single most important environmental decision that the EPA makes this year."

Earthjustice attorney David Baron, who represented environmental groups in a lawsuit challenging the Bush standard, applauded EPA's proposal, saying the current standards do not protect public health with a margin of safety.

"We also welcome EPA's proposal of a separate standard to protect forests from ozone damage," Baron said. "According to the National Park Service, ozone pollution causes widespread tree damage and severely impacts tree growth. Both the Park Service and EPA's science advisers have called for a strong separate standard to protect our forests from ozone pollution."

Former House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who probed allegations of White House interference surrounding the 2008 standard, also welcomed the proposal.

"I am pleased that EPA is once again basing its clean air decisions on the advice of independent scientists," Waxman said. "I applaud this reversal of a Bush administration decision to ignore science."

Industry groups question science

Industry groups, however, expressed concern that the proposed regulations are not needed to protect public health and welfare and that they will impose undue economic burdens.

"This goes well beyond the statute requirement of requisite to protect health and welfare," said Amy Chai, staff counsel for the National Association of Home Builders.

"It places an impermissible burden on the industry," Chai added. "Obviously our industry at this point is just not equipped to deal with a burden that is not going to contribute positively to air quality."

The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that the action lacks scientific justification. "EPA acknowledges the newer studies on ozone 'do not materially change any of the broad scientific conclusions regarding the health effects of exposure,'" the group said in a statement. "Given that conclusion, there is absolutely no basis for EPA to propose changing the ozone standards promulgated by the EPA Administrator in 2008."

Depending on the final standard, EPA said its proposal would yield health benefits between $13 billion and $100 billion. The estimated cost for implementing the draft rule range from $19 billion to $90 billion.

EPA will accept public comment on the rule for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The agency plans to hold two public hearings on Feb. 2 in Arlington, Va., and Houston and a third on Feb. 4 in Sacramento, Calif. EPA plans to issue its final standards by Aug. 31.

The agency proposed an accelerated schedule for determining whether areas are in compliance with the primary standard and is accepting comments on whether to designate areas for a secondary standard on an accelerated schedule.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500