The Clinton administration's proposal to tighten national air quality standards for smog and soot may offer an opportunity for some regions of the country that have struggled for years to bring their cities into compliance with the existing clean-air goals.
The hotly debated new standards, proposed Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency, would set a new definition of healthful air and reduce the allowable levels of pollution from ozone and fine chemical particles, two of the main ingredients of smog.
The strict new rules might seem to spell trouble for many states, including New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, whose urban air fails to meet even the current health standards.
But not every city's smog is all home-grown. In New York and in other big cities from the Great Lakes to New England, much of it wafts in from other states.
For that reason, some air quality experts say the new rules may help clean up the downwind areas by controlling pollution from the smokestacks of distant factories and power plants. Those plants now escape strict controls because the air locally is clean enough to meet standards.
"Certainly, the new standards will end up giving the Northeast some leverage to get at the problems coming in from the Midwest," said Nancy H. Sutley, a senior aide to EPA Administrator Carol Browner.
Ohio, for example, where all but a few communities already comply with the existing ozone standard, would find most of the state out of compliance with the new standard. And the new pollution controls that Ohio and similar states might have to adopt would be a big help in making the air more breathable in the Northeast.
Controls on power plants in the nation's cleaner areas are likely ,, to play a big role in any new strategy aimed at curtailing the ozone that drifts across the eastern half of the nation, damaging people's lungs along the way. Other steps could include the wider use of cleaner-burning gasoline and of cars that pollute less.
The idea that upwind states ought to do more to help protect the environment in cities hundreds of miles away is not new.
Northeastern states banded together a few years ago and agreed to require the use of reformulated gasoline in the region as one way to address their shared problems. The EPA has also controlled power plant emissions that can cause acid rain at great distances.
But until now, it has proved much more difficult to expand the geographical reach of the Clean Air Act to control longer-range ozone transport, as the problem of wind-borne smog is known.
Solving the problem "has put the EPA in the Solomon position: They have to divide the baby," said David Hawkins, an air quality specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"This is not a scientific problem," he said. "It is a profound political question. How much should Ohio contribute to protect the air quality in New York?"
Robert Shinn, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that the EPA's proposal to toughen the ozone standard would definitely help Northeastern states by putting more pressure on other states to do more.
"I don't think there is any question," he said. "Without getting a handle on transport, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will have difficulty meeting these standards."
In any case, he said, the new proposal to limit ozone in the air to 80 parts per billion (ppb) over an eight-hour period is better for people's health than the existing standard of 120 ppb over a one-hour period.
So states that already meet the existing standard will be protecting the health of their own citizens, not just doing a favor ,, for someone else, when they move to meet the new standard.
But already, governors of states that meet the current standards are complaining about any tighter pollution controls.
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for example, objected to the expected recommendations from an ad hoc panel known as the Ozone Transport Assessment Group to control ozone emissions in states like Arkansas for the benefit of faraway cities.
"Placing the same pollution control requirements on Arkansas as are required in Chicago or New York does not make sense, and these policies would likely be met with widespread resistance here," he warned in a letter to Browner on Oct. 2.
EPA officials hope that when state governments take a broader, regional view of the pollution problems, their support for the agency's proposal will grow.
That is important, because industry critics of the rules have been drumming up opposition among state and local officials on the ground that the tougher standards would be impossible to meet at any reasonable cost, and that many states have already done everything feasible to control smog.
That is not necessarily so, say experts who have been working on a plan to control ozone regionally.