EPA adds more areas to list on bad air

470 counties designated as having unhealthy levels of ozone or smog

April 15, 2004|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency will officially designate today about 470 of the United States' 2,700 counties as having air with unhealthy levels of ozone or smog, EPA officials said yesterday.

The designation coincides with a new, more protective standard that today becomes the country's primary gauge for judging smog levels.

The ozone levels in many of the designated counties, which include 100 metropolitan areas and at least eight popular national parks, have dropped in recent years, EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt said in remarks to the National Press Club. But, he added, there are still days when the levels are higher than is considered safe.

"This isn't about the air getting dirtier; the air is getting cleaner," Leavitt said. "It's about our standards getting tougher and our national resolve to meet them."

In 1997, the EPA decided that it needed to set a more protective standard for ozone because scientific research showed that even at low levels, ozone pollution was causing acute respiratory problems, aggravating asthma and impairing immune systems. Children, older individuals and people with fragile immune systems are most vulnerable. The standards were designed to reduce asthma attacks, hospital stays and chronic illness.

Old standard

Under the old standard, air was considered unhealthy when it measured above 120 parts per billion of ozone over a one-hour period. Now air is considered unhealthy if it measures an average of above 85 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. Ozone is the primary component of smog.

Today's announcement will more than double the number of counties considered to have harmful levels of ozone. Currently, 221 counties -- home to more than 110 million people -- violate the one-hour standard, according to EPA officials. The states suggested last July that 412 counties deserved to be on the new list, but in December the EPA proposed naming 506 counties. EPA officials refused to specify which counties fell off the agency's list or why.

Leavitt described the new ozone policy as a key part of the Bush administration's strategy to launch "one of the most productive periods of air quality improvement in our ... nation's history."

Other new policies include the designation this year of counties that violate a new health-based standard for fine particulates, or air pollutants that cause heart and lung problems and are responsible for thousands of early deaths. Another is a proposal to reduce air pollution from power plants in 28 eastern states by capping emissions allowed from plants and allowing plants that clean up quicker to sell "emissions credits" to plants that are slower to clean up.

`Picking up the pace'

These new policies show that the government is "picking up the pace" in improving air quality, he said.

But officials from states, congressional Democrats and environmental groups said the Bush administration had repeatedly made decisions that slowed progress toward cleaner air.

For instance, they said, the EPA gave power plants and other major polluters exemptions from the Clean Air Act provision requiring them to install modern pollution controls when they significantly expand or modify older facilities and increase pollution.

And the EPA's mercury proposal cut emissions of the harmful air toxin much more slowly and less deeply than required under the Clean Air Act, according to the critics.

In all these cases, critics accused the administration of giving polluting industries, especially coal-fired power plants, too much say in the writing of the rules that regulate them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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