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Editorial

Political smog

The White House is caving to pressure and delaying new ozone standards despite a scientific consensus that the minimum standard is too high. Health is too important to allow politics to interfere.

August 11, 2011

Former President Bush had a nasty tendency to put politics ahead of science; one of the more flagrant examples of this occurred in 2008, when the Environmental Protection Agency set a weaker standard on ozone, the key ingredient in smog, than the agency's scientific advisory panel had unanimously recommended. President Obama arrived in office the following year promising to rescue us from such dangerous interference. So what is Obama doing about the smog problem? Apparently, putting politics ahead of science.

In January 2010, the EPA announced that it would revisit the Bush administration's decision to set the national ozone standard at 75 parts per billion because reams of evidence showed that such a high concentration would endanger human health. "Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long-overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said then. Speaking of long overdue, so is Jackson's revision. The EPA has missed four self-imposed deadlines for issuing new rules on ozone, the latest on July 29.

Why the delay? In December, the EPA said it was seeking more input from its science advisors. The agency received all the input it could need in March, when the panel panel reaffirmed its Bush-era advice to set the standard between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Clearly, the environmental science hasn't changed; what's different is the political environment. Conservative lawmakers, backed by fossil fuel industry trade groups, are hammering home the message that environmental regulations are slowing job growth. Rather than fighting back, the Obama administration seems to have put the brakes on important new regulations in such areas as coal ash storage, industrial emissions, mountaintop coal mining and ozone.

The result: more human suffering. Smog irritates the lungs, leading to asthma and, in some cases, premature death. Opponents often cite the high cost of tough ozone rules — the EPA estimates that a 60-part-per-billion standard could cost as much as $90 billion to achieve by 2020 — but never mention their economic benefits in the form of lives saved and medical costs avoided, which the EPA places as high as $100 billion for the 60-part standard. What polluters don't want the public to know is that if the government cracks down on smog, those emitting the ozone will be handed the bill, rather than those getting sick from it.

Obama could make that case, but he seems to feel it's safer to quietly ignore public health threats during campaign season. From a political standpoint, he might even be right. But tell that to the kids living near places like L.A.'s ports who have to fight for every breath.

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