Environmental Groups Petition to Overturn EPA Ozone Standard

WASHINGTON, DC, May 28, 2008 (ENS) – Health and environmental advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to adopt stronger standards for ground-level ozone proposed by the agency’s own scientists.

The American Lung Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Appalachian Mountain Club are taking issue with the standards adopted by the federal environment agency in March.

The standards for ozone pollution, one of the components of smog, are not only far weaker than those unanimously recommended by EPA science advisors, but also leave public health and the environment at great risk, the groups contend.

“EPA officials ignored the advice of their own scientists when they chose these deficient standards, but they can’t ignore the law,” said attorney David Baron with the public interest law firm Earthjustice who filed the lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC Circuit.

Smog hangs over the city of Atlanta,
Georgia. (Photo credit unknown)

“The Clean Air Act requires EPA to adopt standards strong enough to protect our lungs and our environment. We’re fighting to make sure that happens,” Baron said. “Stronger standards could save thousands of lives, by some estimates.”

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson is already under suspicion of bowing to White House pressure to reject stronger smog standards. Johnson was grilled last week by members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who asked why he rejected the advice of scientists in setting the standard.

Before the committee on May 20, Johnson defended his actions and insisted that he was solely responsible for the smog decision. He declined to provide details about his meetings with the president and other White House officials.

“I have routine meetings with the executive branch including the president … those meetings are in confidence,” Johnson told the committee.

Johnson testified beside the head of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Dr. Rogene Henderson, who critiqued Johnson’s actions, telling committee members, “Policymakers wandered into science and they did not do it well.”

“Willful ignorance triumphed over sound science,” Henderson told the legislators.

Henderson’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee had recommended that the EPA set the health standard at between 60 and 70 parts of ozone per billion parts of air.

Instead, Johnson and the EPA set the standard at 75 parts per billion.

In their petition for review of the EPA ozone standard, the groups contend that the 75 parts per billion standard leaves asthmatics, young children, the elderly and others at greater risk for lung and heart disease than the standard recommended by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee .

Smog is linked to premature deaths, thousands of emergency room visits, and tens of thousands of asthma attacks each year. Ozone is especially dangerous to small children and senior citizens, who are often warned to stay indoors on polluted days.

Exposures of less than 24 hours to current levels of ground-level ozone in many areas are likely to contribute to premature deaths, according to a National Research Council report published on Earth Day 2008

Evidence of a relationship between exposures of less than 24 hours and mortality has been mounting, but interpretations of the evidence have differed, prompting the EPA to request the Research Council report.

The committee that wrote the report was not asked to consider how evidence has been used by the EPA to set ozone standards, but the evidence is strong enough that the EPA should include ozone-related mortality in health-benefit analyses related to future ozone standards, said the committee.

“Ozone pollution threatens breathing for millions of Americans, especially children, the elderly and people with lung disease including asthma,” said Bernadette Toomey, President and CEO of the American Lung Association. “The EPA’s decision to disregard the overwhelming evidence and the advice of respected experts is a decision that we could not allow to go unchallenged.”

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