Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson announced March 12 that he had signed a more stringent eight-hour standard for ozone, the first revision of the standard in more than a decade, and called for changes to the Clean Air Act that would allow the EPA to consider cost and feasibility when developing air quality regulations.

The new standard was changed from the current level of 80 parts per billion (ppb) to 75 ppb. Johnson says the new standard, based on a review of the current science on the effects of ozone on public health, is the toughest national standard ever enacted for ozone.

Johnson says ozone levels have dropped 21% since 1980 as EPA, states and local governments have developed plans for improving air quality. "America's air is cleaner today than it was a generation ago," he says. "By meeting the requirement of the clean Air Act and strengthening the national standard for ozone, EPA is keeping our clean air progress moving forward."

But a total of 85 counties across the U.S still have not met the current standard, which was set in 1997. States and counties that are designated as "non-attainment" areas can face stiff penalties and have federal transportation dollars withheld until their air quality improves.

Some industry groups say that the standard should not have been changed as a number of communities are still struggling to reach the less stringent 84 ppb requirement. "Changing the rules now is equivalent to moving the goalposts during the middle of the game," says John Engler, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. " EPA's own studies show that ozone levels have dropped 21% since 1980 and continue to decline."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says, "The consequences of the rule means that hundreds of counties across the country—which have worked long and hard to come into compliance with the current standard—will once again face potential stiff federal penalties, lose highway dollars and become unattractive places to locate news businesses."

Based on current monitoring levels, approximately 345 counties will not meet the new standard, Johnson says. The EPA will begin designating communities as non-attainment areas based on the more stringent standard in 2010. Non-attainment states will have three years to develop plans to lower ozone levels and have up to 20 years to implement their plans.

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers have generally blasted the new standard as too lenient. Many say Johnson should have relied more on the input from the agency's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which recommended that the standard be set no higher than 70 ppb. "We're disappointed that EPA disregarded the unanimous urgings of its experts science advisors," says John Walke, director of the National Resource Defense Council's Clean Air program.

Johnson also called on lawmakers to modernize the Clean Air Act to allow decision-makers to consider benefits, costs, risk and feasibility when developing air quality regulations. That recommendation may not get much traction with a Democratic-controlled Congress. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) says she does not support revising the Clean Air Act. "The Bush administration would have us replace clean air standards driven by science with standards based on the interests of polluters."