Photo courtesy of House Energy and Commerce Committee
EPA chief McCarthy says 70 parts per billion standard is achievable and only 14 counties would fail to meet it by 2025.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tightened its standard governing ozone levels to 70 parts per billion from the current 75 ppb, a move that sparked strong criticism from industry groups and only modestly positive comments from environmentalists.

Industry organizations contend that EPA went too far in setting the new standard, which Administrator Gina McCarthy signed on Oct. 1, and some environmental groups wanted the agency to adopt an even tougher benchmark.

Nick Goldstein, American Road & Transportation Builders Association vice president for regulatory affairs, thinks that EPA will have to defend the rule in court. “I expect this to be challenged on both sides,” he says.

The new standard for ground-level ozone, or smog will take effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, but states and localities will have years to take steps to comply with it.

If a locality falls into “non-attainment” with the ozone standard, it could have some federal highway aid withheld until it complies. Other construction-related impacts could include states or localities deciding to postpone or forego construction projects in order to reduce emissions and meet the requirement

McCarthy told reporters in a conference call, “This standard is achievable.” She said that existing programs and regulations and programs, such as tougher standards for motor vehicle emissions, will help localities meet the new ozone requirement.

McCarthy added that EPA projects only 14 counties outside of California would fail to attain the 70 ppb level in 2025. She also said that sanctions such as withheld highway funds for non-attainment with national air quality standards are rare, occurring only 11 times.

EPA says areas would have until 2020 to 2037 to comply with the new benchmark, depending on how severe their current ozone problems are.

McCarthy said that ozone, which stems from emissions from motor vehicles and industrial facilities, is “a dangerous air pollutant” that causes lung damage, makes asthma worse and increases the chance of  premature deaths.

She said that the new standard “will substantially increase public health protection. There is absolutely no question about that.”

EPA estimates that the regulation’s annual benefits will total $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion in 2025 and outweigh its estimated $1.4 billion in yearly compliance costs.

ARTBA’s Goldstein notes that ozone pollution has been reduced under the existing 75ppb EPA benchmark. He asks, “If a current standard is working, why do they need to go further and tighten it again?”

He would like to see changes in the Clean Air Act itself, which would require congressional action. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a critic of the EPA regulation, said in a statement, “I will be pursuing legislation in my committee to push back on EPA and prevent red tape from continuing to…abound.”
Environmental organizations wanted EPA to issue an even stricter ozone limit. Sierra Club President Michael Brune said in a statement that the 70 ppb number is “a modest step in the right direction,” but “a missed opportunity to clean up our air and protect the most vulnerable Americans.”