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Demystifying EPA's new smog regulations

12/02/14

  08:44:00 am, by Laurel Hamilton   , 572 words  
Categories: Climate Change, Ranting

Demystifying EPA’s New Smog Regulations

The New York Times, Washington Post and other national media all weighed in on a historic, yet divisive, announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As part of the Obama administrations’ enforcement of the Clean Air Act the EPA proposed a regulation that would lower the current limit for ground-level ozone pollution to 65-70 parts per billion (ppb) with a possibility for seeking a standard as low as 60 ppb. This is in line with what independent scientific advisory panels have been recommending since 2008 when the current level was established at 75 ppb. The EPA had planned to release the rule in 2011 but the Obama Administration decided to delay due to election year jitters and the President preferred to wait until the economy was in a better condition to handle the economic blows that would result. Some may believe this is an issue being pushed by the Obama administration, but the 1970 Clean Air Act requires that these air regulations are revised based on the scientific evidence every five years.

Ozone description from Houston Clean Air NetworkThe proposed standard is referring to ground-level ozone everyone in Southern California knows as smog or the infamous “haze”. As we are also painfully aware, smog is caused by emissions of pollutants which come from a range of sources including cars, power plants, air traffic, manufacturing plants, and oil and gas refineries. Ozone in the air we breathe is very harmful triggering a variety of effects such as asthma, chest pain, heart and lung disease, and premature death – particularly in children, the sick, and the elderly. For sunny Los Angeles this is no small matter since ozone causes the most damage during hot sunny days. As such, the updated standard is meant to be a public health measure and does not include direct regulation on businesses. The new rules will expand the ozone monitoring season and update the Air Quality Index to keep people informed when pollution levels are dangerous.

The fossil fuel industry, manufacturers, and their allies criticize the new standards stating they will wreak havoc on the economy. Some even calling it the “costliest regulation ever”. Indeed, power plants and factories will need to install expensive technology to clean up their pollution emissions. However, advocates argue that the economic benefits - measured in reduced health care needs and increased productivity due to improved health - significantly outweigh the costs to industry. States also have an exceedingly generous time, up to 23 years, to comply. Though some regions, including Southern California are not even complying with the 1997 standard of 84 ppb yet.

EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, stated “Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air,…protect those most at-risk”, and the American people “deserve to know the air we breathe is safe.”

This is what improving regulations on air quality is all about. Though smog levels have been improving steadily over the last 40 years, there are always costs and benefits to each incremental improvement. As populations in urban centers continue to grow, these reductions in allowable pollution levels are always going to be both more difficult to accomplish and more imperative to preserve human and environmental health. Most would agree that human and environmental health trump the economic health of industries, especially industries that now have many viable solutions to damaging practices. Getting regulations in line with scientific evidence is just one more way to remind industry of how their environmental impacts are affecting the rest of us.

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