EPA to Finalize Ozone Pollution Rules this Fall

By: Nick Engelfried 

August 24, 2010
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says this fall it will finalize new rules regulating ozone, the main component of smog pollution.  After releasing draft ozone standards in January, the EPA originally planned to release the final rules this month – in August of 2010.  Now the agency says the rule making process has been delayed a few months but that it hopes to have the new ozone rules completed by late October of this year.
In nature, ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere forms a protective shield against ultraviolet radiation from the sun – the now-famous “ozone layer.”  However at ground level ozone is considered a harmful pollutant, commonly referred to as “smog.”  Ground level ozone is the result of a chemical reaction between nitrous oxides from pollution sources like cars and coal plants, and volatile organic compounds produced by a wide range of human activities.  Though the visual impacts of smog are most readily apparent, ozone also contributes to health problems like asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and other heart and breathing-related conditions.  Exposure to high levels of ozone pollution over time can result in serious illness or death.
Federal regulations on ozone pollution, which the EPA is required to implement under the Clean Air Act, have been meant to determine what’s considered an unsafe level of ozone in the lower atmosphere, and limit emissions of pollutants like nitrous oxides that cause ozone smog.  In the late years of the George W. Bush administration, the EPA proposed rules on ozone pollution which health and environmental groups argue were insufficient to protect public health.  A compilation of 1,700 studies by scientists recommended stronger limits be placed on ozone to protect the public from unsafe levels of pollution.
Then came January of 2010 when the EPA, under the leadership Barack Obama-appointed administrator Lisa P. Jackson, announced it would re-examine the issue of ozone pollution.  The EPA released a draft of new rules which environmental groups welcomed as a crackdown on ozone and the many health problems that go with it.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and coal industries have opposed the stronger rules and attempted to get lawmakers on their side.  In May of this year, seven US senators sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency not to strengthen the Bush-era ozone rules, citing concerns that pollution regulations would be economically harmful. 
Yet a new analysis by national energy experts concludes polluters like the electric industry could meet new requirements to reduce ozone and other types of pollution without great hardship.  The report is co-authored by Susan Tierney, who has worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations on energy issues, and is generally considered an expert in the field.  According to the report, new pollution rules are likely to mean the retirement of some of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants, and replacement of these plants with cleaner sources of electricity generation.
Now both industry and health and environmental groups are waiting to see what final rules on ozone the EPA unveils this fall.  The strength of the eventual regulations will influence public health in dozens of major cities suffering from high levels of smog, and will help determine air quality all over the country.
Photo credit: Marcy Reiford

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