The Environmental Protection Agency's staff has concluded that the government needs to tighten smog rules by somewhere between 7 and 20 per cent.
In its final recommendation in a 597-page report, the agency staff agrees with EPA's outside scientific advisers that the 6-year-old standard for how much smog is allowed needs to be stricter, saying it will save a significant number of lives and cut hospital visits. An earlier version of the report came to a similar conclusion.
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Industry representatives criticized the recommendation as way too costly, while environmental activists hailed it as a public health measure.
Since 2008, the standard has allowed up to 75 parts of ozone per billion parts of air. The staff report recommends between 60 and 70 parts per billion.
The report says it will provide more health protection for higher risk populations, including the elderly, very young, outdoor workers and people with asthma and lung disease. And it estimated that there are tens of millions, if not more than 100 million people, in that at-risk category.
'While the costs may be significant, the costs of inaction, including billions of dollars of health and welfare impacts are overwhelming.' - Bill Becker, National Association of Clean Air Agencies
When the agency tried to make a similar rule a few years ago, it estimated it would cost up to $90 billion a year, making it one of the most expensive environmental regulations ever proposed. After industry and Republicans in Congress criticized it, President Barack Obama withdrew it in 2011.
Ross Eisenberg, a vice-president at the National Association of Manufacturers, said Friday the rule that staff recommends would cost up to $270 billion a year. In a written statement, he said "the current standard of 75 parts per billion protects public health" and added that there is much "financial risk evident in this new regulation."
Industry for four decades has exaggerated the costs of cleaning up air, countered Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, saying the current rule is too weak.
"EPA's ultimate decision is literally a matter of life and death," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state and local air regulators.
"While the costs may be significant, the costs of inaction, including billions of dollars of health and welfare impacts are overwhelming."
A 2011 EPA study looked at the history of air pollution regulations and found that the benefit of clean air in better health and reduced deaths "vastly exceeds" the costs of air pollution rules going back to 1990. It said that by the year 2020, overall costs of air pollution rules would be $65 billion a year, while savings would be worth almost $2 trillion a year.
Federal law requires that air quality rules be updated every five years. A federal judge ordered the EPA to have a new rule by December after environmental groups sued to get the government to tighten existing rules.