WASHINGTON — California officials charge that a Bush administration plan to achieve lower smog levels in about a decade could perversely mean more pollution in the meantime.
Although the administration has not released its plan publicly, Environmental Protection Agency officials have outlined their proposal in conversations with the states.
At present, the federal government requires the states to hold hourly ozone levels below federally established standards. The EPA is converting to a system that will measure average ozone levels over eight hours.
The eight-hour standard will be stricter than the one-hour standard. But the deadlines for achieving it are expected to be far enough in the future that California officials fear local pollution-control agencies will lose momentum.
"We're afraid this will be a signal to air officials and industry around the nation that they don't have to work as hard to attain clean air because suddenly they're given a 10-year reprieve," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the state Air Resources Board. "We don't think the breathers of California can afford a 10-year reprieve."
California officials worry that the EPA will revoke the one-hour standard and leave localities with no deadline for years. The state wants the federal government to enforce both standards.
Almost 30 million Californians live in areas that have yet to attain the one-hour standard. Most of the state's main urban areas fail to meet the standard. San Diego recently reached it, and the San Francisco Bay Area appears close.
Most California areas face punitive action from Washington if they do not meet the standard by 2005. Los Angeles, which is far from attaining the level, has a 2010 deadline.
EPA officials said the agency had yet to make final decisions on the shape of its proposal for implementing the new ozone standard. But they stressed that the plan would not hinder California's efforts to clean up its air.
"We're not going to do anything that is going to slow down the momentum in California to reduce ozone levels," said Jeffrey Holmstead, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation.
Holmstead added that California's concerns would be considered as the administration designed its proposal, which is expected to be unveiled early next year and made final by the end of the year.
But Martin said EPA officials told the state they expected their plan to drop the one-hour standard about a year after the areas affected by the new eight-hour standard were designated by the EPA. The state believes this would remove the deadline pressure that localities are facing. That pressure otherwise would spur aggressive efforts in the coming years to cut smog.
The Clinton administration decided to adopt an eight-hour standard after a thorough review of the one-hour standard. The review, which was required by the 1970 Clean Air Act, found that the one-hour standard was not aggressive enough to protect public health.
Even at low levels, ozone can cause acute respiratory problems, aggravate asthma and impair the immune system. Children are most at risk. The new eight-hour standard was designed to greatly reduce risks of asthma attacks, hospital stays and chronic illness.
When setting the new standard, the Clinton administration stated that the one-hour standard would not be revoked until an area had attained it for three years in a row, to ensure a smooth transition.
The Bush administration is redoing the implementation plan because the Supreme Court ordered the EPA back to the drawing board. In 2001, the court upheld the eight-hour smog standard, which was being challenged by truckers and other industries, but told the agency to redesign its plan for implementing it.
Holmstead said the agency was considering revoking the one-hour standard because it could be too complicated for states to maintain both. In some cases, the standards will apply to different geographical areas.
"There are a lot of implementation difficulties if you're trying to implement the one-hour and eight-hour standard at the same time," Holmstead said.
He said California could opt to keep both standards. Martin scoffed at that notion.
"That doesn't pass the straight-face test," Martin said. "Keeping the standard with no federal enforcement power behind it is meaningless."
The Air Resources Board expressed its concern in a letter to Holmstead late last week.
"U.S. EPA should not revoke the one-hour standard in existing non-attainment areas when new eight-hour designations are made," Michael P. Kenney, the board's executive officer, said in the letter. "Such an action would clearly be a weakening of the current requirements."
Environmental activists agreed that revoking the existing ozone standard before the states had new programs in place to implement the new standard could hinder progress toward cleaner air.
"It would be a perverse result for the health standard to be strengthened and the consequence of that be dirtier air for another decade," said John Walke, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
California complained that this is just the latest in a string of actions by the Bush administration that could strip the state of important tools for cleaning the air. Last month the administration overhauled the so-called new-source review rules to give major polluters new flexibility. Those rules govern the circumstances under which plants must install modern pollution control devices when they modify their facilities and increase pollution.
"We think it's another assault on the environment that is being cleverly disguised, just as new-source review, as being an improvement," Martin said.