The smog showdown

Thanks to a little arm twisting by a federal judge, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally poised to revise rules governing the amount of smog and ozone in the air we breathe. That’s good news: Ozone, a byproduct of the fumes from motor vehicles and industrial plants, is nasty stuff. When inhaled, it reacts with the lining of the lungs, causing irritation and potentially leading to asthma attacks, heart disease, and even premature death.

Current standards, which permit ozone levels of up to 0.084 parts per million (ppm), have long been acknowledged to be inadequate: According to the EPA’s independent scientific advisers, “there is no longer scientific uncertainty” about the need for tougher regulation. The agency’s experts have unanimously called for an ozone standard of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm; countless medical groups, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, also back a 0.060 ppm threshold.

You’d think that in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus, introducing tough new rules would be a no-brainer. But for the Bush administration, nothing’s that simple: The White House and the EPA have been holding meeting after meeting with industry lobbyists, and appear to have accepted their argument that steep ozone cuts would place too great a burden on automakers, agribusinesses, and Big Oil.

Insiders now say that EPA officials plan to propose a half-hearted compromise, setting ozone standards in the region of 0.075 ppm – significantly higher than the threshold called for by the agency’s own experts. It’s even been suggested that the agency might cave in completely, agreeing to set new standards identical to the current limit – a move that would, of course, achieve absolutely nothing.

This isn’t merely a question of arguing over numbers, it’s a matter of life and death. The EPA says that setting a 0.075 ppm threshold would save between 230 and 2,400 lives a year – but admits that imposing a slightly tougher standard of 0.070 ppm would save up to 4,000 lives a year, producing additional health benefits worth $11 billion a year. Even tougher cuts would, of course, produce even greater benefits.

Despite this, the EPA seems determined to split the difference between corporate interests and the public health and to offer only a minor increase in ozone standards. That’s scandalous, and probably illegal: The Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Air Act prohibits the EPA from weighing economic arguments against potential health benefits in determining clean-air standards. The way things are going, it seems the EPA could be due for another dose of judicial arm twisting.

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