updated 10/1/2004 9:20:15 AM ET 2004-10-01T13:20:15

Few of the cities most prone to smog now meet federal standards or have shown progress over the past decade in reducing the pollutants that cause it, the Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog says.

Those few improvements “may be more related to changes in weather patterns than emission reductions,” says the report released Thursday by the agency’s inspector general.

It was issued just a week after EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said the nation’s air quality is improving. “The air is the cleanest it’s been in three decades but we’re not done yet, obviously,” he then told reporters, referring to an EPA report that estimated the total emissions of six pollutants targeted by the Clean Air Act had dropped in 2003.

Report: 'Insufficient progress'
The inspector general’s report notes that the EPA has been talking up declining levels of smog-causing ozone nationally and regionally despite “insufficient progress” by the EPA and states in reducing those emissions in some major cities.

At the same time, the EPA has been shifting to new standards that allow less ozone in the air and require monitoring of air quality over eight hours instead of one hour. A violation occurs when the amount of ozone exceeds an average of 0.08 parts per million over an eight-hour period.

Ground-level ozone, a precursor to smog, is considered a serious health problem. It causes respiratory illnesses that can be especially damaging to the elderly, children and people with asthma, according to health advocates.

In April, the EPA ordered counties in 31 states to reduce smog-forming ozone but extended the deadlines in some cases for bringing the air into compliance with more stringent federal health standards.

“Many of the most polluted metropolitan areas are still struggling to attain EPA’s 1-hour ozone standard established over 25 years ago,” the EPA inspector general’s report says. “The more stringent 8-hour standard ... presents even greater challenges.”

EPA's response
In response to the report, Jeff Holmstead, the EPA assistant administrator in charge of air quality, said the agency has focused on putting the new standard into place “rather than spending resources looking back. ... We believe public health will be served by this choice.”

The worst regions, under the older standard, extend from Los Angeles to Sacramento, Calif., Chicago to Milwaukee, New York City to Washington, D.C., and around Atlanta, Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, according to the EPA.

The EPA says about 159 million people, or more than half the U.S. population, live in counties that have dirty air or contribute to air problems in neighboring communities.

Environmentalists accused the EPA of “foot-dragging” by repeatedly letting polluted cities put off legally required cleanup plans and fall years behind schedule in curbing smog.

“These illegal delays mean more days when children and senior citizens are warned to stay indoors because of dirty air,” David Baron, an attorney for the Earthjustice law firm, said Thursday. “EPA needs to stop violating clean air deadlines and start protecting our lungs.”

Clean air change criticized
Separately, the EPA inspector general reported Thursday that the Bush administration hindered the settlements of pollution lawsuits against utilities by easing a clean air rule. The EPA described that conclusion as inaccurate and misleading.

The rule requires utilities to install new pollution control equipment whenever they make major plant upgrades that result in more pollution.

Sen. Jim Jeffords, a former Republican and now independent representing Vermont, accused the Bush administration of "trying to gut the enforcement of the Clean Air Act" and said the internal EPA report shows "a blatant and willful disregard for the law."

"The Bush White House has regularly sought to exempt the biggest, dirtiest power plants and other industrial polluters from legal requirements that would protect local air quality and reduce millions of tons of harmful pollutants," he said in a statement.

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