Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson modestly lowered limits on ozone pollution Wednesday, angering both industry groups who lobbied against changes and medical, scientific and environmental groups who pushed for tougher limits.
EPA officials estimated that the tighter limits would leave 345 counties in violation of federal health requirements for smog, although they said the final count would not be known until 2010. About 85 counties and many major cities already fail to meet the current standard.
Counties in the Southeast, the Midwest and a few parts of California, including inland portions of the San Francisco Bay Area, could find their air declared dirty under the new regulations. They probably will have to reduce emissions from power plants, refineries, motor vehicles and consumer products, such as paint and hair spray. The regulations allow governments two decades to comply.
President Bush intervened at the 11th hour and turned down a second proposal by the EPA staff that would have established tougher seasonal limits on ozone based on its harm to forests, crops and other plants, according to documents obtained by The Times. Federal scientists had recommended those growing-season limits as a way to keep vegetation healthy and capable of trapping carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
Johnson also proposed revamping the landmark Clean Air Act to allow EPA administrators to consider industry and consumer costs when revising pollution standards, and to eliminate a requirement to review limits on leading air pollutants every five years, among other changes.
"The bottom line is it's time to modernize the Clean Air Act," Johnson said. "It's been nearly two decades since [it] was last in the shop. Now is the time to begin the public debate."
Any changes to the law would require approval from the Democratic-controlled Congress, where he would face an uphill battle against legislators already unhappy with him over earlier decisions.
Johnson said the new ozone limits were "the most stringent" to be signed by an EPA administrator and would adequately protect public health. He lowered the legally allowable limits of exposure from about 84 parts per billion to about 75 ppb over an average eight-hour period.
Ozone is not directly emitted but formed when sunlight mixes with nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds produced from tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources.
Los Angeles, the Central Valley and other heavily smoggy areas could win lengthy extensions to meet ozone requirements because they could adopt new plans with longer deadlines. But Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California, said he hoped that would not be the case.
"This seems to potentially be a pattern for the Bush administration to adopt new standards that wipe out the current requirements, which results in a delay of the implementation of federal measures to clean the air," said Wallerstein, who said he was also disappointed that Johnson hadn't adopted a lower ozone limit.
EPA's science advisors and a children's health panel had unanimously recommended that Johnson adopt tougher standards, based on mounting evidence that breathing ground-level ozone aggravates asthma and can lead to serious respiratory problems and premature death, particularly among children and the elderly.
"The Bush administration has compromised public health to save industry money," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the Washington nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. "Real science has been tainted by political science."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, sharply criticized the agency's decision.
"Once again, the EPA has rejected the recommendations of its scientific advisors and failed to protect our communities from dangerous air pollution," Boxer said.
She called the suggestion to alter the Clean Air Act "outrageous."
Industry groups said that risks from ozone were being exaggerated, and that tightening the regulations would do little practical good.
"Changing the ozone standard is the wrong call," said John Kinsman, senior director of environment for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities across the nation.
"Those opposing the standard have adopted a rationale that significantly skews the scientific record on ozone's health effects. In essence, people could end up paying at the pump and through higher energy bills for health benefits they may never receive."
He and others said hundreds of local districts across the U.S. hadn't been able to meet the current allowable levels, set a decade ago, because of a lack of available technology to remove enough ozone.
"Moving the goal posts again will inflict economic hardship on these areas without speeding air-quality improvement," Kinsman said.
Memos between the EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget in the last week show that White House budget officials objected to proposed seasonal standards as being illegal over-regulation. EPA officials countered, but Bush weighed in late Tuesday, and a written order reflecting his decision turning down the proposal was completed.