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The War on Smog: EPA issues ozone rule that displeases environmentalists and business interests

ozone air pollution St. Louis
Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Since last fall, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans for an administrative rule to tighten standards on “ground-level ozone,” better known as smog, business and environmental groups have been fighting over what might seem to most of us to be minute differences on a grand scale. In anticipation of the new standard, both of Missouri’s U.S. senators have introduced separate bills to limit the rule’s economic impact on businesses, and state and local governments.The rule would tighten the national standard for smog from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The current standard, set in 2008, under the Bush administration, is higher than the range recommended at the time by the EPA’s scientific advisory panel of 60 to 70 parts per billion.

Public health and environmental advocates, including Andy Knott with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Missouri, have been pushing for the most stringent standards possible saying the difference is a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of Americans. “Obviously we have been advocating for the most protective possible 60 parts per billion because that would save four to five times as many lives as 70 parts per billion,” Knott told St. Louis Public Radio.

As soon as the EPA released its new standard, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club expressed their disappointment. Knott issued the following statement. "Today, the EPA let down Missouri families - especially those that live in some of the most polluted cities in the nation. While the EPA's announcement bring us one modest step closer to ensuring cleaner, healthier air for Missouri families, it is abundantly clear that we must do better to keep our towns healthy and safe."

A draft proposal of the EPA’s rule indicates that a standard of 70 parts per billion would prevent more than 300,000 cases of asthma attacks in children and more than 1,400 premature deaths nationally. It says, a standard of 60 parts per billion would prevent nearly 2 million cases of childhood asthma attacks, and almost 8,000 premature deaths.

Business and industry groups question those numbers and say that with each incremental tightening of the standards come huge costs for compliance. They, along with most congressional Republicans and some Democrats have dubbed the rule the “most expensive regulation in history.”

When the EPA first announced its rule, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and CEO Dan Mehan said that he simply did not believe the agency’s health claim. “If it were such an epidemic as these people are supposedly saying, where’s the proof, where’s the evidence, where are the people getting sick. It’s just not happening.” Mehan also says the costs to implement the new standards would be “astronomical.”

Knot, says business groups have always had “a sky is falling attitude toward these kinds of safeguards and they’ve always been proven wrong.” Knott argues that air pollution has an economic impact as well. “Increased asthma attacks and hospitalizations … are all drains on the economy so, there’s an actual benefit to reducing air pollution in terms of the economic impact.”

Rules and legislation

U.S. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is backing legislation to prohibit the EPA from imposing the new standard until at least 85-percent of the current “nonattainment" counties achieve compliance with the existing standard of 75 parts per billion. “The last thing workers and families in Missouri need is yet another burdensome regulation that will further stifle jobs and economic opportunity,” Blunt said, in a statement when the rule was first unveiled.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is backing a separate bill to give state and local governments greater flexibility to meet the new standard and to avoid being tagged with a “nonattainment” status by the EPA. The designation imposes significant hurdles to economic activity and development, according to McCaskill’s office. She says cutting down on ozone pollution is a goal that can be achieved “without inflicting economic damage on communities that are struggling to meet these standards.” McCaskill says her bill would “help guard Missourians’ health, and Missourians’ livelihoods, while not accepting the false choice of jobs or the environment.”

The ozone rule is just one of several environmental regulations the Obama administration is pushing in its final months in office. Another rule known as the Clean Power Plan, would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions to levels 30 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years.

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, says his understanding is that the Clean Power Plan “is going to double the cost of electricity to the average household in the next 10 to 15 years. If that happens its going to be very destructive, not only for the people in my district, but of the entire country and its costs are going to hurt the business community as well.”

Earlier this week, the agency adopted yet another new rule on air quality. In a conference call with reports from across the U.S., agency and administration officials explained plans to require oil refineries to install monitoring equipment around their facilities to sample for benzene. If the monitors detect levels of the carcinogen, above the EPA’s limit, refineries would be required to locate and correct the source of the benzene emission.

Along with the various rules on air quality, the administration has also stirred up significant opposition and court challenges with its new rule on clean water standards known as the Waters of the United States rule. A federal judge has stopped that rule’s implementation in 13 states that challenged it, including Missouri. The administration is proceeding with the rule’s implementation in states that were not party to that lawsuit.

Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, a newly appointed member of the House Natural Resources Committee says, he “enthusiastically supports” efforts by the “administration to help clean up our air, to make the air quality safer for all Americans.” He’s also quick to dismiss Republican objections as “reflexive” opposition to President Obama. “It’s just their opposition to this man and his presidency.”