updated 4/1/2004 2:48:53 PM ET 2004-04-01T19:48:53

Many of the nearly 350 U.S. counties in violation of federal air quality standards because of smog or soot are not expected to achieve compliance without additional local pollution controls, the head of the Environmental Protection Administration said Thursday.

Mike Leavitt, the EPA administrator, told a Senate hearing that “well over half” of the counties are expected to be in compliance by 2015 because of tighter controls on diesel trucks and power plants. But the agency’s preliminary estimates show that dozens of counties won’t be compliant by then and some areas with severe pollution won’t come into compliance before 2019, he said.

More than 110 million people live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone and 65 million people in areas that have too much soot in the air, Leavitt said. Smog and soot are leading causes of severe respiratory illnesses.

Final ozone list this month
Leavitt promised that by April 15 the EPA would produce a final list of counties that do not meet the more stringent air quality standards for ozone — a precursor of smog — and follow with a list of areas not meeting the soot standard later this year.

He produced preliminary numbers, based on 2000-2002 data, that shows 346 counties nationwide — mostly in the eastern third of the country and southern California — in violation of one or both of the two air standards.

“We will bring well over half of counties now monitoring nonattainment into attainment with the fine particle (soot) and ozone standards between now and 2015,” Leavitt said in testimony at a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing.

He said the EPA is focusing on reducing two major sources of pollution to clean up the air: a cap-and-trade program to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur releases from power plants and requirement for cleaner diesel fuel and less polluting large truck engines.

The tougher smog and soot requirements were issued in 1997 to address concerns that the old standards did not adequately protect vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses. But their implementation has been delayed because of unsuccessful court challenges by the trucking and other industries.

Timeframe for cleanup plans
Leavitt said that state and local officials will have three years to submit plans on how they intend to clean the dirty air and come into compliance.

“Attainment dates (for smog) are expected to range from 2007 to 2019, depending on the severity of the ozone problem and other factors,” said Leavitt.

As for microscopic soot, Leavitt said the EPA anticipates issuing by December a final list of counties failing to meet the new, tougher standard. State plans for reducing soot levels will be due by February, 2008. Compliance is expected between 2010 and 2015, he said.

Leavitt said the preliminary estimates show that by 2015 the number of counties in noncompliance for ozone will drop from 226 to 27, for soot from 49 to 16, and for both pollutants from 71 to eight.

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