EPA Under Fire for Putting Ozone Fight on Back Burner

The agency declined to institute new limits on ozone pollution last year even with research linking smog exposure to worse Covid-19 outcomes.

A view of smoggy downtown Portland from the East Bank Esplanade is seen on Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

WASHINGTON (CN) — More than a dozen health and environmental groups invited the D.C. Circuit on Thursday to review lax ozone standards that the Environmental Protection Agency opted to leave as-is last year.

The EPA published the policy in the federal register on New Year’s Eve, a parting shot from the lame-duck Trump administration after four years spent upending climate-minded regulation as a drain on American enterprise.

Ozone regulations are required to be studied every five years, but then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler had said at a July press conference that the existing ozone limit of 70 parts per billion was working well to keep harmful emissions in check.

Though the standard had been set at 75 ppb in 2008, President Barack Obama’s EPA was the one to reduce the limit to 70 ppb — a move that drew criticism from both environmental groups and the manufacturing industry.

Georgia Murray, staff scientist for the Appalachian Mountain Club, was adamant in a statement Thursday that today’s air requires more stringency.

“The science clearly shows that a stronger limit is needed to protect public health and also support separate standards to protect plants and the environment,” she said. “The negative impacts of ozone to plants and ecosystems include a litany of insults including visible foliar injury, productivity declines, biomass loss, altered nutrient and water cycling, changes in community structure, and disruption of plant-insect interactions. We need stronger science-based standards to address ozone’s impacts on the air we breathe and natural ecosystems that cherish.”

The Appalachian Mountain Club brought the petition for review Thursday in Washington along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and others.

“The Trump administration corrupted and rushed the scientific review process of this rule as it walked out the door, just so industrial polluters can sit and do nothing for the harm they cause,” Seth Johnson, lead Earthjustice attorney on the case, said in a statement. “These outdated ozone standards must be corrected not just for children’s safety and public health, but also because they are critical to addressing the climate crisis.”

Smog-causing ozone is largely a product of industrial sources. While the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regularly examine ground-level ozone limits using scientific, not economic impact data, it is not required to change them. When a region of the country exceeds that limit, it must find a way to reduce air pollution levels.

Just last month in a separate case, the D.C. Circuit agreed with conservationists that the Clean Air Act contained three illegal loopholes relating to ozone emissions that let states manipulate clean air requirements. 

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, scientific studies linked  asthma attacks and other respiratory problems to ground-level ozone that can be created by cars, power or chemical plants, or refineries. According to one report by the American Lung Association, roughly half of all Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particulate pollution, and low-income communities or communities of color are disproportionately at risk.  

Ozone can also damage crops, trees and other vegetation — something Stephanie Kodish, clean air program director for one petitioner, the National Parks Conservation Association, pointed out in a statement Thursday, saying the gas damages park plants like the Quaking Aspen tree at Rocky Mountain, reduces crop yields and limits tree growth. 

“People visit national parks thinking the air is clean, but ground level ozone contributes to poor air quality, affecting parks across the country from Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, to Yosemite in California,” said Kodish. “Ozone is a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate harms in Arctic landscapes and ecosystems in Denali.

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