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New EPA Rule Limiting Ground-Level Ozone Draws Fire From All Sides

A new rule from the Obama Administration aims to further reduce the main ingredient in smog. That might sound like good news if you live in a city where smog is a problem. But after the rule was announced, there were plenty of complaints about it.

Technically, the Environmental Protection Agency is reducing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone limits from the current level of 75 parts per billion (ppb) down to 70 ppb.

Ground-level ozone is linked to respiratory illnesses and it can worsen diseases like emphysema and asthma. It's created when pollution from cars, factories, power plants and other sources chemically react with sunlight. It's primarily a problem during the warmer months of the year.

"Put simply — ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The EPA was under a court-ordered deadline to issue a rule today. A year ago, a scientific advisory committee suggested the agency set the standard between 60 and 70 ppb. Environmental groups are critical of the EPA for setting the new limit at the upper end of that spectrum.

While acknowledging the tighter standard will provide health benefits, John Walke, senior attorney and director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the EPA missed an opportunity to set an even lower level, closer to the 60 ppb.

"Setting the safest recommended standard would have saved almost 6,500 lives and avoided nearly 1.5 million more asthma attacks per year than the smog pollution level the administration has chosen," said Walke.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has been a vocal opponent of tightening the current standard. NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said that while "a worst-case scenario was avoided" the new rule is "overly burdensome, costly and misguided."

"The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers," said Timmons.

The EPA's stricter limits on ground-level ozone also set a new standard that communities around the country will have to try and meet. Some will have a more difficult time than others. The EPA projects that with existing programs to reduce pollution already in place, the vast majority of counties will be able to meet the new standard by 2025.

In responding to criticisms in the wake of her agency's new rule, McCarthy told reporters she didn't base her decision on a popularity contest. "What the Clean Air Act tells me to do is make my best judgement on the basis of the science," said McCarthy.

While her predecessor, Lisa Jackson, had considered an even stricter standard — 65 ppb — McCarthy said now there's more scientific research available that casts uncertainty over the benefits of setting the standard lower than 70 ppb.

Even though the new standard is now an EPA rule, it may not be the end of the debate. Some advocates for manufacturers and the oil industry are asking Congress to step in and block the new rule.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.