EPA to tighten rules on clean air Agency to cite data on public health, but price tag may be huge

November 27, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to propose tighter federal air-pollution standards, a move that could help millions of people in Maryland and the rest of the country breathe more easily and live longer.

But the agency's sweeping regulatory proposal, to be announced today, could come with a multibillion-dollar price tag, to be paid in higher electric bills and costs for gasoline and consumer products, such as paints and cleaning solvents.

The EPA's proposal of new limits for ozone and particle pollution is prompted by an environmental group's lawsuit and by an EPA scientific review. Research indicates that many people suffer and even die prematurely from breathing air that meets the current standards for the two pollutants.

The government is acting on both pollutants simultaneously because of their similar health consequences and sources, which include emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants, diesel buses and trucks, and auto tailpipes.

The move seems sure to provoke a clash between the Clinton administration and Congress, which have sparred over environmental regulation.

The new standard could double or triple the number of urban areas, which now total 75, required by the Clean Air Act to combat smog. Depending on how the EPA sets the new standard, it could also require redoubled efforts from cities such as Baltimore that are struggling to clear their air. Baltimore's air last summer would have been deemed unhealthful on 39 days under the EPA proposal, compared with just four days under the current standard.

0$ And one environmental group this

year ranked Baltimore 17th worst, among the 50 largest urban areas, for soot-related deaths.

The auto and oil industries, electric utilities and manufacturers -- facing new costs if the standards are adopted -- are already lobbying against them, warning of "unwarranted economic disaster." Environmentalists, though, say the EPA must act now because scientific evidence is ample that current standards do not protect the public.

"There are millions and millions of people in the country breathing air that harms them, and they don't know it," said Blakeman Early, a consultant for the American Lung Association. The association petitioned EPA to tighten ozone limits and went to court to force the agency to adopt a new standard for particle pollution.

For ozone, the chief ingredient in summertime smog, the EPA plans to replace the one-hour standard of 125 parts per billion with a standard to permit no more than 80 parts per billion over eight hours.

The ozone standard was last changed in 1979. Research since then has found that many people -- especially those with asthma or other chronic respiratory problems -- suffer lung inflammation, eye irritation and breathing difficulty at ozone levels far below the current threshold. Some otherwise healthy people also appear to be sensitive to ozone; the EPA considers children playing or adults working outdoors to be especially vulnerable.

One study this year blamed smog for up to one in 12 respiratory-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits in the Baltimore area -- a rate second only to that in Los Angeles, widely recognized as the smoggiest city in the country.

But industry spokesmen say tighter standards could worsen the political backlash against smog-control efforts, even as air quality seems to be improving.

"It's kind of like when you get two or three yards from the [end zone], and they move the goal line," said Robert T. Drew, director of health and environmental science for the American Petroleum Institute.

The industries have also argued that there is no evidence that a stricter ozone standard would help anyone. They quote a letter from EPA's scientific advisory committee as evidence that a more stringent limit would not offer much more protection than the current standard.

"There's no reason, we think, to change the standards at this time, because there's no health benefits," said Reg Modlin, a spokesman for Chrysler Corp.

Businesses also contend that tighter standards could cost billions to meet. Such complaints have prompted some members of Congress and governors to urge the EPA to postpone any decision to await more research.

"Costs do concern us at the agency," said William Harnett, the EPA's associate director of air strategies. "It's just that the law is clear."

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA set air-quality standards every five years that would protect public health and welfare, regardless of cost. EPA officials say they plan to give states and localities ample time and flexibility to minimize the economic burden of meeting the new standards.

"I don't think there's a whole lot more, if any, that we would have to do," said Merrylin Zaw-Mon, air management director of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Jonathan Samet, professor and chairman of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, recently corroborated the evidence of mortalities from particle pollution found by other researchers. He said he agreed with the need for a new standard, though he might differ on the details.

"It's very hard to ignore the evidence of mortality," Samet said. "I think we have a public health signal we have to pay attention to."

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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