POLITICS

EPA Chief Says 'Controversial' New Smog Limits Are Necessary

04/22/2015 07:35 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

WASHINGTON -- New rules limiting smog may be "controversial," but they are among the administration's top priorities, according to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

McCarthy told The Huffington Post that the EPA will have the final rules on ozone pollution ready by October, the court-ordered deadline for the agency to issue a final decision.

"We know every time you look at an ozone rule it’s contentious, but frankly there’s nothing more important than [for] us to take a look at air pollution like ozone and particulate matter," McCarthy said.

The agency announced draft rules last November that lower the range of permissible ozone pollution to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, from the current limit of 75 parts per billion. The agency said it would also take comments on whether to set the limit as low as 60 parts per billion.

Ground-level ozone pollution, more commonly known as smog, comes from chemical reactions between nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, which are emitted from industrial facilities, power plants and automobiles. Exposure can cause respiratory distress, and is particularly problematic for children, people with respiratory conditions and the elderly.

The EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has recommended lowering the current limit on ozone pollution, arguing last year that there was "adequate scientific evidence" to support lowering the standard to 60 to 70 parts per billion. The panel said that setting the limit at the higher end of the spectrum, at 70 parts per billion, would provide "little margin of safety for the protection of public health, particularly for sensitive subpopulations." Setting the limit at the lower end of 60 parts per billion, however, "would certainly offer more public health protection," the committee said.

McCarthy did not tip her hand on where the agency's final number would fall. "The whole name of the game is to make sure that we understand how to keep people healthy," said McCarthy. "Then we work with states and communities on what are the things they can do that are reasonable and cost-effective that actually produce those pollution reductions and the public health protections that we all need."

The ozone rule has had a long slog through the agency. Under the George W. Bush administration, the EPA adopted new ozone standards in March 2008 that set the limit at 75 parts per billion, prompting environmental and public health groups to sue the agency saying the standard was too weak. The Obama administration agreed to reexamine the rules, and in 2010 announced draft rules that would lower the limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion.

But in September 2011, after months of delay, President Barack Obama personally directed the agency to hold off on a final rule, as part of an administrative goal of "reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty." After another lawsuit, a federal court directed the EPA to come up with an updated final rule by October 2015.

Environment and public health groups like the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association argue that the EPA should come down on the lower end of the proposed range in order to provide the greatest public health benefit. Industry groups, meanwhile, have pushed back on updating the pollution limit at all, arguing that the draft rule would be "the most expensive ever imposed on industry."

McCarthy acknowledged that the final number will be disputed no matter where it falls in that range.

"Ozone may be controversial, but it is essential for us to get these decisions out," she continued. "It’s essential for us to take comment on them and to thoughtfully consider them."

The above video was produced, filmed and edited by Ibrahim Balkhy, Christine Conetta, Brad Shannon, Maxwell Tani and Adriana Usero.

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