Eight Washington state counties and many other areas of the United States that meet existing smog standards could be declared out of compliance...

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Eight Washington state counties and many other areas of the United States that meet existing smog standards could be declared out of compliance under proposed new ozone levels announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Under court order to update ozone standards for the first time in a decade, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson proposed tightening them by up to 17 percent in response to mounting evidence of health risks. Under the toughest proposed standard, hundreds of counties and municipalities, including most of the Puget Sound area and Spokane County, could be required to adopt new smog controls or face a loss of federal highway funds.

“Based on current science, our current health standard is insufficient to protect public health,” Johnson said. “Based upon the outstanding input I received from our clean air science advisory committee, and our world-class environmental staff, I concluded that there was no scientific justification for retaining the current standard.”

Still, his proposal fell short of what was unanimously recommended by the science advisory committee, as well as his staff. Medical groups, environmentalists and some members of Congress criticized Johnson and his senior advisers for not acting more aggressively.

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“Smog kills, and EPA should be doing everything it can to save lives and protect the health of our children and families,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the environment and public-works committee. “Instead of listening to science, the administrator seems to be intent on listening to the wish lists of polluting industries. The final ozone rule must protect clean air and public health, period.”

Smog is a mix of chemicals emitted mainly from car tailpipes, diesel engines and the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. It becomes a more acute problem on hot summer days and can lead to shortness of breath, chest pains and lung inflammation.

Johnson replied to critics that “the law does not require me to pick the lowest level. It requires me to do what is requisite to protect public health and the environment … and as our proposal points out, the task before us is to neither over- nor under-regulate.”

Washington impact

The EPA says 104 of 639 counties across the country fail to comply with the current allowable ozone standard of 84 parts per billion. Most problem areas are in California, Texas, the Atlanta area, the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic and the Upper Midwest. None is in Washington state.

If the standard were toughened to 75 parts, 398 counties would fail to comply. At 70 parts, 533 counties would fail to comply. Washington state counties that wouldn’t comply with the toughest standard: Island, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Thurston.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

As outlined by Johnson, the EPA has proposed the allowable amount of ozone — or smog — in the air be reduced from 84 parts per billion to between 70 and 75 parts per billion.

The announcement triggered a 90-day public-comment period, followed by several public hearings. Johnson said the agency will make its final decision March 12, 2008.

The agency also will take comments from those who agree with an independent committee of scientists that advised the EPA to set an even stricter ozone standard than the one Johnson proposed Thursday. Johnson also said he will consider arguments for maintaining current standards — business lobbyists visited the White House at least twice in recent weeks to urge Bush administration officials to back off — but noted the Clean Air Act requires the agency to base standards on health risks alone, not the costs of cleaning up pollution.

Still, environmental groups expressed concerns about the agency’s invitation for comments about keeping the existing limit.

“Why is EPA dithering? Evidence points to the secret hand of the White House,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

The latest push reflects a growing view among scientists that less smog than previously thought can trigger asthma attacks and contribute to early deaths. The EPA estimated that its proposal could reduce by 30 percent to 60 percent the risk of children having trouble breathing normally. Studies also have linked increased ozone levels with higher hospital admissions.

“The current standard is insufficient to protect public health,” Johnson said repeatedly at a news conference. “I recognize that others don’t agree with that, and I want to provide an opportunity for them to provide comments on which we can make an informed decision.”

Industry representatives disagreed that research shows sharply higher risks from ozone while contending that a tougher standard would damage the economy.

Former EPA air and radiation administrator Jeffrey Holmstead maintained that, while new studies show minor increases in lung-tissue damage and possible premature deaths, there were no definitive links between mortality and ozone exposure. He is now a consultant at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents power plants, refiners and other businesses.

Bryan Brendle, air-quality policy director for the National Association of Manufacturers, said toughening the standard would be too costly while providing little or no health benefit.

“We would adamantly oppose lowering the standard to the level being discussed and would work hard to keep it from happening,” Brendle said.

Within weeks, EPA will release an impact analysis that will detail health benefits and economic costs of its proposal.

Enforcement of the current standard, first proposed in 1997 by the Clinton administration, was delayed for years by legal challenges from business groups. The Supreme Court rejected foes’ claims and upheld EPA’s authority to base air-quality standards on public health, without considering economic concerns.

Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The Associated Press. Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton also contributed to this report.

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