After years of legal wrangling, the Environmental Protection agency on Thursday told officials in 31 states they must develop new pollution controls because the air in some of their counties, home to more than 150 million people, do not meet air quality standards.
Activists were wary, however, because the rules will not be evenly applied nationwide, and were considering going back to court to stop them.
Acting under court order, the EPA identified all or parts of 474 counties that either have air that is too dirty or that contributes to neighboring counties’ inability to meet the federal air standards for smog-causing ozone.
The EPA, in a companion regulation, also issued new requirements aimed at curtailing air pollution in national parks. Both announcements are the result of court settlements with environmental groups.
“When we are finished, our entire nation will have cleaner air,” EPA chief Mike Leavitt said in a speech Wednesday.
Frank O'Donnell, director of the Clean Air Trust, disagreed, claiming the rules allow some states to use cleanup methods that pre-date 1990 rules set by Congress. "Interestingly, in most cases, the states permitted weaker requirements will be states that voted for President Bush in the last presidential election," he said.
"Some areas with worse pollution will be permitted weaker pollution controls and potentially longer time to meet the new health standard," O'Donnell said.
And Howard Fox, a lawyer with the legal firm Earthjustice, said a lawsuit is possible. "A court challenge is an option we expect to consider," he said. "In order to decide on an appropriate course of action, we'll have to review the rules first."
Clinton-era roots to smog rule
The EPA said all or part of 474 counties, mostly in the eastern third of the country and in California, do not meet the federal health standard for smog-causing ozone. Officials have three years to develop plans to come into compliance.
The new standards “are strong medicine” and “will require more actions on your part to achieve cleaner, healthier air,” Leavitt said he told governors of the states.
The EPA said the regions in noncompliance may have to impose new controls on industrial plants, restrict transportation and require tougher vehicle inspection programs to clean up their air. Some counties also may have to require the use of special, cleaner-burning gasoline.
The new standards, crafted by the Bush EPA after being initiated under the Clinton administration in 1997, are intended to reduce smog from ozone produced by paint and gasoline vapors combining at ground levels with nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel burning. Heat and sunlight turn it into smog.
O'Donnell acknowledged that the dispute goes back to the Clinton days, when all states were granted "flexibility" on how to implement the standards. Courts overruled that, citing the 1990 congressional changes to the Clean Air Act, and ordered specific local controls, O'Donnell noted.
What the Bush administration has done, O'Donnell charged, is to limit those specific controls to one section of the rules.
Deadlines for meeting the air quality standards range from 2007 for those with the least serious problem to as long as 2021 for areas with the dirtiest air.
The EPA said the Los Angeles basin had the worst smog problem, the only region to be placed in “severe” pollution category. Three other regions of California — Riverside County, San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento — were designated as having “serious” pollution and have until 2013 to meet the standards.
The other counties have from “marginal” to “moderate” dirty air and will have three to six years to come into compliance. Areas that continue to violate the standard could face sanctions including a loss of federal highway funds.
A designation of noncompliance also has economic impact on areas because often businesses are reluctant to locate there, fearing future pollution controls.
The counties in nonattainment included most of California, a ring of states around the Great Lakes, and a concentration of states in Northeast from Washington, D.C., to Boston as well as eastern Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and the Dallas and Houston areas in Texas.
Leavitt said despite the widespread notifications of noncompliance “many states received good news.”
He said 2,668 counties met the standards, as did 19 states: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
The standards allow less ozone in the air, from 120 parts per billion down to 85 parts per billion, and require more hours of sampling.
They were delayed from taking effect for four years because of failed court challenges by the trucking, manufacturing and business groups as well as by the states of Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.
The Supreme Court upheld the standards in February 2001. Environmental and public health groups such as the American Lung Association and Environmental Defense sued to force government into action.
Leavitt was under a court-ordered deadline Thursday to release the list of non-complying counties and the categories they fall in, which determine the corrective measures and time frames to accomplish cleanups.
National parks rule
The EPA also required that states impose new limits on air pollution from power plants and other sources of emissions, which drift hundreds of miles and cause haze and visibility problems in remote areas.
That rule results from a lawsuit by Environmental Defense to enforce Clean Air Act goals for improving visibility in 155 national parks and wilderness areas, and in the Roosevelt Campobello International Park near Lubec, Maine, overseen by a U.S.-Canada commission.
Some of the parks affected include Acadia in Maine, Glacier in Montana, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Shenandoah in Virginia, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and Sequoia and Yosemite in California.
“There’s an urgent need for EPA to clean up the pollution from power plant smokestacks that cast a veil of haze over our national parks and harms public health,” said Vickie Patton, a senior attorney in Boulder, Colo., for the environmental group.
EPA background on the ozone rules is online at www.epa.gov/ozonedesignations.
EPA background on the visibility proposal is online at www.epa.gov/oar/visibility/program.html.