EPA recommends tighter air quality standard

Nov 26, 1996 01:00 AM

The US Environmental Protection Agency is recommending tighter national standards for emissions of the chemicals and particles that form smog and soot, some of the most pervasive and unhealthy forms of air pollution. The new definition of how clean the air must be to protect the public's health is going to be one of the biggest environmental fights of the coming year, raging from the Oval Office to Capitol Hill and drawing in federal judges and governors. Under the proposal, hundreds of communities that comply with the Clean Air Act under the current rules could fall out of compliance, roughly tripling the number of counties where state and local officials must take further steps to clean up the air. At least 100 million people live in these areas.Business groups are lobbying hard against the proposal, predicting that it will cost them billions of dollars to meet standards that they contend will offer no important benefit.Environmentalists and public health groups, say that tens of thousands of people could be protected from illness or even death if the rules are toughened and that the EPA's proposal is unlikely to go far enough in that direction.The EPA predicts that the costs, while running into billions of dollars, will be much less than industry studies predict and that most areas will eventually meet the standards without taking extraordinary steps, providing important health benefits to the public.But complying with the new rules would be especially hard for many large metropolitan areas, such as the New York City region, because they are still struggling to meet the current air quality standards.The EPA's proposal has been years in preparation. And it has been the subject of especially intense debate in the past few days at the White House, with some senior officials urging that a major part of the package be delayed a few weeks or months, as big business lobbyists have repeatedly requested.The EPA's decision is expected to be announced after a final review by senior regulatory officials at the White House. It follows an extensive study by the environmental agency of scientific studies documenting the health damage caused by soot and smog, especially in children, asthmatics and outdoor workers. But there are heated arguments about whether this research is convincing.Business groups and environmental and public health groups will also fight over the costs and benefits that could result from the change. By law, questions of cost should carry little weight because the Clean Air Act requires that health, not economics, dictate air quality goals. But politically, the potential expense of compliance is a major factor.Among the strategies that states might include in their federally approved compliance plans could be mass transit projects, incentives for companies to limit emissions, new requirements for pollution controls on factory smokestacks and improved programs for vehicle inspections. Governors, stirred into action by a far-reaching industry campaign, have repeatedly written the administration to raise concerns about the proposed rule change, which would tell many state and local governments that their past progress in cleaning up the air is no longer enough to satisfy the demands of the Clean Air Act.The details of the new rule must be announced by Nov. 29 under a court order obtained by the American Lung Association, which sued to force a review of the existing standards for particulate matter, the fine particles of pollution formed largely from burning coal, oil and gas. The EPA decided to issue at the same time a new standard for ozone, another harmful gas that helps form smog.The Clean Air Act requires that national standards for the six major types of air pollution, which include ozone and particulates, be reviewed periodically.

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