SELC Urges EPA to Set Strong Smog Limit to Protect Public Health in the South
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced it will re-evaluate the national limit for ozone pollution set by the Bush Administration in 2008, which disregarded recommendations from public health experts and federal scientists for a stronger standard to protect more people from breathing dirty air.
Ground-level ozone, or smog, has plagued Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville, Birmingham and other urban centers in the South for years. The colorless, odorless gas triggers asthma attacks and causes other lung and heart disease, as well as premature death. In the fast-sprawling South, vehicle exhaust is the main source of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, the primary contributors to ozone pollution. Coal-fired power plants also contribute to the problem.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set air quality standards for certain pollutants at levels that protect public health, including sensitive populations, with an adequate margin of safety. In 2006 and again in 2007, an independent committee of scientists charged with advising EPA unanimously recommended that the agency tighten the national standard for ambient levels of ozone from 84 parts per billion (ppb) to between 60 and 70 ppb to adequately protect public health. In a rare deviation from its own advisers' recommendations, the Bush EPA ultimately set the standard at 75 ppb.
Lowering the limit to at least 70 ppb would bring many more communities into nonattainment, triggering clean-up requirements that would benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens, and would underscore the need for aggressive, prompt action in those areas already violating the older, more lenient standards.
** Editors: SELC has maps of the 6-state region (AL, GA, NC, SC, TN, VA) available showing the various nonattainment areas.
Please contact Cat McCue at cmccue-at-selcva.org. ***
Frank Rambo, SELC Senior Attorney: “Ozone pollution plagues virtually every major urban center in the South and the U.S. This is a welcome step by the EPA to re-examine the critical decision of where to set the limit. Although these appear to be quite small amounts we're talking about, the increasing numbers of children in emergency rooms, older people with lung disease, and even premature deaths are not inconsequential.”
Public health studies reviewed by EPA show that lowering the limit of 75 ppb to 70 ppb could mean annually avoiding 780 premature deaths linked to ozone exposure nationwide, as well as avoiding:
* Almost 2,000 hospital admissions for infants and the elderly;
* 440,000 school absences; and
* 1,200,000 days of restricted activity.
Adding and expanding the areas that would be in nonattainment and would thus have to meet certain deadlines in reducing ozone levels partly accounts for the increased health benefits associated with the stronger standard.
Ozone pollution, or smog, is known to trigger asthma attacks, reduce lung capacity and has been linked to heart disease and premature death. At its worst during hot, dry weather, ozone pollution causes officials to warn children and the elderly to stay indoors on many summer days. Children, whose respiratory systems are still developing, risk permanent loss of lung capacity through prolonged exposure to polluted air. For senior citizens, the natural decline in lung function that occurs with age is worsened by air pollution.
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STATE BY STATE
Because EPA presumes that nonattainment boundaries should be drawn around an entire metropolitan statistical area, more counties than just those with the violating monitor could be designated as part of the nonattainment area. The Clean Air Act makes it harder to build new major stationary sources or to modernize existing ones in nonattainment areas, and may also curtail federal highway construction funds.
The state has recommended that, under the 75 ppb limit, metro Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile be designated in nonattainment. The nonattainment areas associated with Birmingham and Huntsville could expand to include additional counties to ensure that the state's plan to clean up the air in those metro areas addresses all major causes of the problem. In addition, air quality monitors in the following areas would show violations of the 70 ppb limit if it were in effect today (based on 2006-2008 data): Florence, Decatur, Gadsden, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, and Russell County (part of the Columbus, GA metro area).
Under the 75 ppb limit, Georgia has recommended that Athens, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and a part of Murray County also be designated nonattainment. Based on recent air monitor data, Chattooga, Columbia, Dawson and Sumter counties are at risk of being designated as nonattainment areas under a 70 ppb limit, meaning more Georgians would benefit from air pollution clean-up measures.
Charlotte ranks #8 in the country for ozone pollution, worse even than Atlanta which has long been the South's “poster city” for air pollution. The metro has been in nonattainment for ozone for years, and is required to take specific steps to clean the air by certain deadlines. But in fact, Charlotte is falling so far behind in meeting the original 84 ppb standard that it may be bumped from “moderate” to “serious” nonattainment, triggering additional stationary source controls, and is at immediate risk of losing its federal highway expansion funds for failing to reduce transportation-related pollution. The stronger standard would mean that even more effort must be taken to curb both transportation and power plant pollution if Charlotte is to avoid sanctions under the Clean Air Act including the potential loss of federal highway construction funds. The Triad and Triangle would be slated for additional ozone cuts, and several smaller cities such as Fayetteville and Asheville would be required to have ozone cleanup plans for the first time.
Rock Hill, a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., has been in nonattainment status for years. Under the 75 ppb limit, South Carolina has recommended that Columbia, Aiken/Augusta, and Greenville/Spartanburg also be designated nonattainment. Under a 70 ppb limit, Charleston and some of the state's smaller metro areas would be in nonattainment, meaning many more South Carolinians would benefit from air pollution clean-up measures.
Metropolitan Knoxville and Memphis have been in nonattainment status for years, and are required to take specific steps to clean the air by certain deadlines. Under the 75 ppb limit, Tennessee has recommended that the greater Nashville area, the Bristol/Johnson City metro area, Meigs County and Chattanooga also be designated nonattainment. The nonattainment areas associated with Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Bristol/Johnson City could expand to include additional counties to ensure that the state's plan to clean up the air in those metro areas addresses all major causes of the problem. In addition to these areas, air quality monitoring in the Brownsville metropolitan statistical area (Haywood County) would show a violation of the 70 ppb limit if that standard were in effect today (based on 2006-2008 data).
Northern Virginia has been in nonattainment status for years, and is required to take specific steps to clean the air by certain deadlines. Under the 75 ppb limit, Virginia has recommended that the metropolitan areas of Richmond, Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads also be designated nonattainment. The nonattainment areas associated with all four of those metro areas could expand to include additional counties to ensure that the state's plan to clean up the air addresses all major causes of the problem. In addition to these areas, air quality monitoring in the Roanoke and Winchester areas and in Wythe and Madison Counties would show violations of the 70 ppb limit if that standard were in effect today (based on 2006-2008 data).