Ozone alert: smog battle heats up again, manufacturers say cleaner air will kill them

John Funk, The Plain Dealer - www.cleveland.com - Cleveland & Ohio Environment, Science & Technology News: cleveland.com

Ozone Action Days such as this one back in 2002 were common when smog obscured the skyline, as seen here from Edgewater Park, and people were asked to take steps to reduce fumes from cars and factories on hot summer days when sunlight created ozone from industrial and vehicle emissions. JOHN KUNTZ CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Another battle about ozone is beginning.
The air waves and blogosphere will soon be thick with warnings about lost jobs versus lost lives as the health and manufacturing industries engage in another round of fighting about lowering the amount of ozone in the air you breath.
Most people know ozone as smog, the filthy air that is mostly the lung-irritating three-atom version of oxygen, or O3. The stuff can also damage vegetation, including crops.
Ozone high in the atmosphere blocks ultraviolet radiation. No one is arguing to limit that.
At ground level, sunlight creates ozone from nitrogen oxides (smoke stacks, diesel and car exhausts) and volatile organic compounds or VOCs (paints, solvents, vinyl floors, car exhausts, fossil fuel combustion and hundreds of chemicals).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is releasing its new ozone standards on Oct. 1 -- nearly one year after seeking public comment.
The announcement has led to a flurry of congressional hearings, proposed bills to limit the EPA's constant tightening of standards, a prediction by the National Association of Manufacturers that the proposed standards would cost the nation $140 billion a year, and this week the release of a 90-page study detailing the impact of new ozone standards on Ohio.
The study was done by the Center for Regulatory Solutions, a small business think tank, which recently produced similar reports for the state of Colorado and the City of Chicago .
The studies focus on job loss and the impact the standards would have on the economy -- issues the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the EPA cannot even use when developing ozone standards.
Here in Ohio, U.S. Rep. Bob Latta of Bowling Green, this week hosted a news conference to talk about the study, about legislation he had co-sponsored to limit the EPA's rule making and to introduce Eric Burkland, Ohio Manufacturers' Association president.
Burkland said the EPA's latest standards would put the entire state in violation.
"We would not be able to expand any factory without shutting down other factories," he said.
The manufacturing groups have also started an "air war" with television spot criticizing the EPA as a job killer.
The EPA is proposing to lower the current ozone limit of 75 parts per billion to a range of 65-to-70 parts per billion. The EPA's science advisory committee has recommended capping the level at 60 parts per billion.
Organizations including the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are arguing the EPA should adopt the lower limit.
In a March 17 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the organizations argued a standard limiting ozone to 60 parts per billion would prevent up to 7,900 premature deaths every year, 1.8 million asthma attacks in children and 1.9 million missed school days nationwide.
"Across the country, children look forward to playing outside in the summer days. But breathing ozone pollution can harm kids' lungs. For some people, it can also mean premature death," said a written statement from Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association. "President Obama needs to adopt a more-protective ozone standard based on the scientific evidence of what is needed to protect Americans from the harmful health effects of ozone smog."
Ozone ozone
Playing political hardball, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel has ridiculed the estimated $140 billion the National Association of Manufacturers says ozone reductions would cost annually, saying the cost estimate was based on a Cash for Clunkers program that had nothing to do with ozone reductions.
"What this is about is delivering on the law's promise to provide all Americans with clean air. And the rules are supposed to be based exclusively on medical science," said John Walke, senior attorney and clean air director for the NRDC.
Walke also dismissed the separate Ohio study as "re-packaged rhetoric" that tallies the number of Ohioans living in counties predicted to not meet the new standards "and then leaping to the absurd contention that their jobs and economic well-being are at risk. There is zero analysis."
The U.S. EPA a year ago said it would lower the current limit of 75 parts per billion to a range of 65-to-70 parts per billion and then asked for comments. In the meantime, Congress has debated at least three bills that would change the original congressional mandate the EPA has been following. The legislation has at least 130 sponsors, mostly Republican but also including some Democrats. One idea has been to limit the agency from issuing new rules until the existing ones have been met.
The agency has countered that it is only following existing law requiring it to look at the rules every five years.
The Bush administration in 2008 set the current 75 parts per billion limit, a reduction from the 84 parts per billion set in 1997. The next review and proposed standard was to have been released in 2013, but the EPA has been slow in its review.
The EPA's science advisory committee, including volunteer health professionals and industry representatives, has twice recommended 60 parts per billion. But the advisory committee is only advisory in nature. And the agency has chosen the higher level.
The U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled the EPA must base its ozone standards on the impact of ozone on health, not the economy. The EPA will release the standards to the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget, which will then review them before finalizing.
That's where the politics come in. The OMB is not under those Supreme Court orders.
Wadsworth GOP Rep. Jim Renacci responded to Monday's report by saying the EPA should give Ohio time to meet the current ozone standards. He argued that "moving the goalposts now will only lead to more uncertainty and higher compliance costs which will ultimately be passed onto the consumer.
"This new proposal has the potential to directly and indirectly harm jobs and economic growth in the manufacturing, energy, healthcare, and construction employment sectors – the lifelines of Northeast Ohio," said a written statement from Renacci. "Our region has already improved its ozone levels and while further impacts on the environment from this proposed rule are questionable, the rules will be harmful for Ohio's economy."
Last month, Renacci was among more than 130 members of Congress from both political parties who signed the letter spearheaded by Latta that urged the EPA's McCarthy to "allow time for the benefits of the current ozone standard to become effective by retaining the current ozone standard.
"It could prove burdensome to force states to implement a new ozone standard at the same time they are only starting to implement the current one," said the letter, which was also signed by Russell Township Republican Dave Joyce, Holmes County Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs and Niles-area Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. "We believe allowing sufficient time for existing measures to take hold, before setting a new ozone standard, would yield the desired results EPA is currently seeking."
Several legislators have proposed bills to keep the EPA from imposing the new ozone standards, but none have become law.
Some legislators, such as California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer have argued for tighter ozone standards. In a June statement before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Boxer said ozone pollution has been shown to cause "thousands of lost school days and work days each year, as well as an increased number of asthma attacks and bronchitis cases, and more emergency room visits and hospital admissions."
"The American people strongly support a tighter ozone standard," Boxer said. "Last November, the American Lung Association found that 68 percent of voters nationwide support strengthening the ozone standards, including 54 percent of Republicans."
The EPA last fall estimated that the benefits of meeting the proposed standards will significantly outweigh the costs. It said that if the standards are finalized, every dollar invested to meet them would return up to three dollars in health benefits by avoiding asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school days and premature deaths.
The agency estimates yearly costs of implementing a 70 parts per billion standard would be $3.9 billion in 2025, and $15 billion for a standard at 65 parts per billion.
"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk," said a written statement from McCarthy. "It empowers the American people with updated air quality information to protect our loved ones - because whether we work or play outdoors – we deserve to know the air we breathe is safe."
Northeast Ohio Media Group's Washington Correspondent Sabrina Eaton contributed to this article.