The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to tighten the ozone standard is meeting stiff opposition both from environmental groups on one side and industry organizations on the other. But congressional critics seem reluctant to introduce legislation to address the issue.

EPA on June 21 proposed toughening the eight-hour ozone standard from the current 0.08 parts per million to between 0.07 to 0.075 ppm. But it left open the possibility of tightening the standard to 0.06 ppm or keeping it at the current level.

Environmentalists contend that if the standard stays at 0.08 ppm, it may not adequately protect public health. Industry officials say counties are having a hard enough time even meeting the current standard and that lowering permissible levels of smog could hurt businesses.

At a July 10 hearing, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members grilled EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson about the proposal. Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted that the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee said the standard should be changed to no more than 0.07 ppm and questioned why EPA is considering retaining the current benchmark. Boxer said, "The science overwhelmingly supports closing the door on the current standard once and for all. Instead of listening to science, the administrator seems to be listening to the wish lists of polluting industries"

Johnson said he understood that some favor a tougher standard than EPA proposed, while others want a higher level or support the status quo. Given such views, he said, "I believe it is prudent public policy to ask for comment specifically on a wider range."

But Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) questioned the wisdom of a stricter standard when some areas are having difficulty meeting the current one. He said air quality has been steadily improving and programs such as the Clean Air Interstate Rule and new diesel fuel and engine rules will result in further gains.

The panel's top Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.), said he would re-introduce a bill to strengthen Clean Air Act penalties on major emission sources in the country's most polluted areas.