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America redraws pollution map
Dirty air is found to be widespread

By Jennifer Lee (NYT)
Tuesday, April 13, 2004

SAN ANTONIO, Texas: More than half the United States' population lives in or around areas that violate clean air standards, according to a list to be released on Thursday by the federal government.

The list is a long-delayed result of federal standards revised in 1997 and will sweep beyond traditional smog-filled metropolises like Houston, Los Angeles and New York to encompass smaller cities like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Birmingham, Alabama, where the air appears relatively clear.

In San Antonio, which has begun taking steps to combat air pollution, the local government broadcasts warnings telling children not to play outside even on some days when the skies are azure blue. Rural communities will be affected along with at least seven national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, Acadia in Maine and Yosemite in California. On the list to be issued by the Environmental Protection Agency will be about 500 counties that violate or contribute to violations of ground-level ozone, more than double the number listed under older standards. Ground-level ozone, which is odorless and invisible, is a major component of smog on hot summer days. Prolonged exposure causes the equivalent of sunburn to the lungs.

The revised standards have wide economic and environmental implications and the makeup of the list has been the subject of lobbying in Washington. Areas in violation face the loss of federal money for roads. Industrial development can be barred in those areas unless companies prove that they would not make pollution worse. "A lot of counties feel if they are in, it will have negative impact on their economic development plans," said Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio. Like many members of Congress, he said he had been deluged by letters and calls from local officials worried that the revised standards would "cause the loss of jobs, restrict economic growth, discourage plant location and encourage manufacturers to move overseas." Since passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the air in America is significantly cleaner, but scientific research continues to ratchet down the amount of pollution that is considere! d healthy to breathe. The revised designations are a result of a process that started in 1997 when the Clinton administration tightened standards for ozone and fine particulate soot, which lodges in the lungs and contributes to lung disease, heart attacks and premature death.

The old ozone rules measured peak exposures over one-hour periods. But dozens of studies showed that persistent exposure to low levels of ozone damages the respiratory and immune systems. The tighter standards measure ozone over eight hours.

Industry challenges to the revised standards rose to the Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the arguments in 2001 and allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the multiyear process to determine which areas were in violation.

A number of states contend that the revised standards are so strict that even if their counties drastically reduced their own air emission, pollution from other states, notably power plant pollution that blows long distances, would still push them into violation.

"There are counties that could take all their cars off the roads, close their factories and clean up their power plants and still not be in attainment," Leavitt said at a Senate hearing in March. To combat that problem, the Environmental Protection Agency has introduced a proposal to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants in the eastern United States by allowing plants to buy and sell the right to emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, with a lowering of overall pollution limits over time.

Almost 300 counties are expected to be deemed in violation of the revised ozone rules. But about 200 neighboring counties will face restrictions because they are considered contributors to the ozone pollution in the counties that violate the rules.

Many states and locales are reviewing strategies that would intimately affect how people live - from cutting speed limits by five miles per hour, or eight kilometers per hour, to discouraging house painting in summer, to giving tax breaks to businesses that encourage working from home.
States will have three years to come up with detailed plans on how they would reduce the two main ingredients of ground-level ozone: nitrogen oxides, which are emitted through combustion, and volatile organic compounds, gases that evaporate from gasoline and paints.

The New York Times

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