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Missouri environmental advocates say EPA ozone review could delay air quality improvements

Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri environmental advocates say a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start a new review of ozone standards will delay efforts to improve air quality. The EPA review comes after an independent advisory committee urged the agency to create more stringent standards.

Missouri health and environmental advocates say a recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review its current ozone air quality standards will delay efforts to improve air quality.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has announced plans to review the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which set limits on the amount of particulates released in the air.

“As we initiate a new review, EPA will continue to work closely with our partners at the state, tribal and local levels to fully implement the existing standards, consistent with our Clean Air Act obligations,” Regan said in a statement last month.

Regan said the review would utilize more recent studies and data to form new standards. The decision follows EPA discussions with the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, an independent group of scientists that advises the administrator on air quality.

St. Louis health experts worry an overhaul of air quality requirements could delay efforts to improve air quality in the region.

“It's a huge missed opportunity to promote health and environmental justice,” said Laura Turner, senior manager of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Missouri. “A myriad of scientific studies have shown us that there are severe health effects, even at the levels that the EPA is enforcing ozone standards.”

A spokesperson for the EPA said in a statement that the national average ozone air quality concentrations dropped by 7% between 2010 and 2022 and that the agency has set controls for emissions that contribute to ozone pollution in the regions that are not meeting EPA standards. The spokesperson said the agency has initiated actions to limit ozone levels by setting new emission standards for vehicles and reducing pollution from oil and gas companies.

The spokesperson said the independent clean air advisory committee also brought to light new issues.

“Integrating the reconsideration in a new review of the ozone [national ambient air quality standards] is the best and most efficient way to fully consider newer studies and updated analyses,” the spokesperson said.

The EPA officials plan to hold a science policy workshop next spring that will focus on the advisory committee’s concerns, which will inform the EPA’s draft Integrated Review Plan issued later in 2024.

The agency set ozone limits to 70 parts per billion in 2015. The EPA's advisory committee urged the agency to create more stringent regulations that limit ozone levels to between 55 and 60 parts per billion to improve air quality.

“I think it's good that they're acknowledging the existing standard of 70 parts per [billion] is not adequate and needs to be reevaluated,” said Sarah Rubenstein, staff attorney for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. “I'm disappointed that they're just going to go back and look at it. They're not committing to take action and they're certainly not doing so quickly.”

Ground-level ozone forms when emissions from sources like vehicles and power plants react to sunlight, which can cause respiratory problems including asthma, chest pains, coughing and throat irritation. Pregnant people, people older than 65 and people with pre-existing lung conditions are more likely to be harmed by ground level ozone.

A report by the American Lung Association gave St. Louis and St. Charles counties an F for ozone pollution while St. Louis received a D, slightly higher than last year.

The report comes on the heels of an EPA report last year that found that the St. Louis region did not meet the agency’s air quality standards and that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources must develop a plan to improve the region’s air quality to get the region under 70 parts per billion. The department held comment sessions this year and will present the plan to the Missouri Air Conservation Commission for adoption. If the commission accepts the plan, it goes to the EPA.

“It's really the EPA who sets the standard,” said Mark Leath, air quality planning section chief for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Air Pollution Control Program. “Once a standard is set, we take that to mean that's the standard we need to try and hit to protect public health.”

But if the EPA decides it will create more stringent standards after it completes its review, it will take time for the state to follow suit and create a new plan to address ozone levels and go through the regulatory process and comment period, Rubenstein said.

“The reality is it's going to be several years down the road before we see any change, even assuming EPA takes action on this new proposed timeline,” Rubenstein said.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.