New EPA Rules Punish Areas for Ozone Improvement

Published December 1, 2007

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently considering a further tightening of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone, known generically as smog.

EPA has twice revised its ozone standards since formulating them originally in 1970, with the most recent adjustment being a significant tightening in 1997.

A notable pattern is becoming apparent: EPA moves the goalposts every time most of the nation meets the then-present ozone standard. The evidence shows this is not a health issue at all, but rather EPA’s strategy to maintain its substantial regulatory power over the American public. A review of the historical context of ozone regulation confirms this agenda.

National Pattern

In 1979 I retired from the United States Public Health Service. At the time, I was the senior advisor for air quality at the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). I was responsible for reporting on the status and trends of the nation’s air quality in the president’s annual environment report to Congress.

A professorship at Drexel University in Philadelphia followed. My first lecture to the faculty and students in the Civil Engineering Department was titled “As Goes Philadelphia, So Goes the Nation’s Smog Problem.” Philadelphia’s efforts to meet ever-shifting EPA ozone requirements are illustrative of what most cities have faced.

Changing Standards

The Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 set the framework for establishing NAAQS for the five major air pollutants, including ozone. It also set the timetable for achieving such standards. The original ozone NAAQS was set at 85 parts per billion (ppb) for one hour, not to be exceeded on more than one day per year. The attainment target date was unrealistically set for 1975.

The baseline (known as the design value) ozone level in Philadelphia was 199 parts per billion in 1975. The difference between 199 ppb and 85 ppb is the reduction in the ozone level required to achieve the NAAQS, or 57 percent. In 1977 the standard was revised upward to 125 ppb because the single study upon which the 85 ppb standard was based had been discredited by EPA.

Moving forward, the ozone level in Philadelphia had dropped to 156 ppb by 1986. However, the CAA of 1990 required that all metropolitan areas be classified by the severity of the ozone level based on the three most recent years of data (i.e. 1988/89/90). The inclusion of 1988 data (which was an atypical meteorological year) caused Philadelphia’s design value to inflate to 187 ppb.

This highly biased classification scheme showed some 98 metro areas outside of California were in noncompliance with the ozone NAAQS.

EPA Punishing Success

By 1994 only 17 metro areas were out of compliance with the NAAQS outside of California. The design value for Philadelphia was down to 139 ppb, just 10 percent above the 125 ppb standard. By 1997 Philadelphia’s design value was 131 ppb, 4.5 percent above the goal.

What did EPA do to reward such improvement? It moved the goalposts. EPA lowered the standard to 85 ppb again (but measured over eight hours per day instead of one).

The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), which acts as the external review body on EPA standard-setting, agreed that changing the standard from 125 ppb to 85 ppb was appropriate. However, it advised EPA the new standard should be no more stringent from a regulatory perspective. The equivalency could have been established by specifying the number of days that 85 ppb could have been exceeded per year and still be in compliance.

In general, one day above 125 ppb equaled about nine days above 85 ppb in most urban areas. EPA ignored CASAC’s recommendation and set the limit at about four days per year above 85 ppb. The design value for Philadelphia was now 101 ppb, or 16 percent above the new ozone NAAQS.

Exaggerating Problems

EPA muddied the picture of national ozone levels even further by reporting how many counties were noncompliant, instead of the number of noncompliant metro regions. Rather than focusing on the 17 or so metro areas previously discussed, EPA now listed more than 300 counties as noncompliant, giving the impression of greater noncompliance than is really the case.

EPA has never explained how it would implement mitigation plans at the county level, as if urban smog plumes don’t cross county boundaries. The federal CAA has never envisioned regulatory activity at the county level.

Unjustified Proposed Reductions

By 2005 the Philadelphia design value was 86 ppb, only 1.2 percent above the current ozone NAAQS. Now appeared to be the time for EPA to bow out and let the states and local agencies take the last remaining steps as appropriate.

Not a chance. EPA has responded by trying to move the goalposts once again, proposing a revision down to 75 ppb and even 65 ppb, which is getting close to background ozone levels absent any human influence at all.

Ninety-one percent of all monitored counties in the nation would be noncompliant under a 65 ppb NAAQS. Further, there are no reasonable control strategies for achieving the further 13 percent to 24 percent reduction in ozone precursor emissions necessary to meet these two proposed standards. And there is no scientifically valid information to suggest the ozone NAAQS needs revision to protect the public health.

EPA should return to its mission of protecting public health from real environmental threats instead of creating imaginary ones to perpetuate the long arm of its regulatory reach.

Kay H. Jones ([email protected]) is head of Zephyr Consulting, a Seattle-based environmental consulting firm. Dr. Jones was a senior advisor to the president’s Council on Environmental Quality during the Ford and Carter administrations. He also served as a senior technical advisor and research manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A longer version of this article appears in the Winter 2007-2008 issue of Regulation.