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EPA Pushes Smog Crackdown PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Sunday, March 21 2010

orlandosentinel.com/news/environment/os-ozone-tougher-rules-florida,0,4277659.story

OrlandoSentinel.com
EPA pushes smog crackdown
Will Florida get tailpipe tests, 55 mph speed limit to cut air pollution?
By Dan Tracy and Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel

March 20, 2010

Tougher U.S. air-pollution rules, scheduled to take effect this summer, could put hundreds of millions of tax dollars at risk while ushering in lower speed limits, carpool lanes and tailpipe tests in areas with even marginally dirty air -- such as Central Florida.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pushing to adopt more-stringent standards for ozone, a major component of smog and a health hazard, especially for children, the elderly and people with breathing ailments.

Primary generators of the pollutant in Florida are cars, trucks and electric-power plants.

The Bush administration refused two years ago to adopt ozone standards recommended by an EPA panel of experts known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

But now, under President Barack Obama, the agency intends to set an ozone limit in the air we breathe of 60 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The current limit is 75 parts per billion, and records indicate that Central Florida typically checks in at 66 to 71 parts per billion.

Predictably, business groups oppose the change, while environmental and public-health groups say it can't come soon enough.

"Even healthy adults can be harmed at levels of 60parts per billion," said Janice Nolen, an assistant vice president with the American Lung Association in Washington.

Nolen said that, according to the EPA and other analyses, achieving a limit of 60 parts per billion nationwide would save 4,000 to 12,000 lives a year and significantly reduce visits to emergency rooms and doctors' offices.

However, many areas of the country are still not meeting even the 75-part-per-billion limit, she said. And if the limit is reduced to 60 parts per billion, the air in most of the nation's urban areas would probably violate the new benchmark -- including some, such as Orlando, that don't often exceed the current maximum.

 

$400M at risk


Locally, that could trigger a raft of changes in government policy to lower the region's current ozone levels. And if the EPA isn't satisfied with that effort, it could freeze an estimated $400 million in federal road-construction funds. That's how much is set aside right now for the next five years in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

"What was over the horizon a couple of years ago is now staring us in the face. We're going to have to get serious now," said Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal, chairman of MetroPlan, which sets transportation policy in those three Central Florida counties.

Dave Grovdahl, a top MetroPlan planner, said potential ways of meeting a stricter ozone limit include dropping highway speed limits to 55 mph, opening vehicle-inspection stations to remove polluters from the road, increasing the use of biofuels, coordinating more traffic signals, promoting mass transit and setting aside travel lanes for vehicles carrying two or more passengers.

Many of those potential solutions are unpopular, especially lowering the speed limit. The Lake Mary-based AAA auto club found in a recent survey found that only 25 percent of its members nationwide favor capping all highway speeds at 55 mph.


Houston's example


Houston, which has much worse air pollution than Orlando's, tried a 55 mph limit for five months but dropped it in November because of public backlash. Atlanta, which also struggles with smog, has mandatory, annual emission tests for vehicles; it is also switching to cleaner gasoline in the summertime, when hotter temperatures and more-intense sunlight boost the complex chemical reactions that convert automobile and industrial pollution into ozone.

Charles Adams, a 78-year-old aircraft-parts repairman who drives often throughout Central Florida, said he worries that many of the proposed anti-pollution measures would be too costly for people paid lower wages.

He dislikes lower highway speeds but added: "That's the easiest thing to live with, and the cheapest thing to live with." Area leaders, he said, should have been working on air quality long before now, keeping pollution in check before it became a problem.

Richard Schutt, chief of EPA's air-planning branch in Atlanta, pointed out that, although ozone standards are likely to become more stringent, air pollution itself is not getting worse.

"We have seen air quality in the country, and particularly in the Southeast, improve," Schutt said. "We've seen levels of ozone go down quite a bit in the last 30years or so, even in areas traditionally identified as having problems."


Critics fight rules


That's a point the American Petroleum Association stressed during an EPA hearing in Houston last month.

Ted Steichen, a policy adviser for the industry group, testified that motor fuels are getting cleaner even as cars, buses and trucks are being designed with increasingly effective pollution controls. His organization also asserts there is not enough health-related evidence to justify lower ozone limits.

"Local communities will be saddled with new costs that will hurt both large and small businesses," Steichen told the EPA officials.

Cal Baier-Anderson, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, said criticizing a stricter ozone limit as a threat to businesses and jobs is nonsense.

"Industry runs around saying the sky is falling, and it's going to be a huge economic hardship," Baier-Anderson said. The nation's air is much healthier today than it was four decades ago not because businesses voluntarily developed cleaner fuels and vehicles, she said, but because they were forced to change by the increasingly demanding pollution rules put in place through the years.

Not only did the economy survive the stricter limits, it probably benefited from cleaner skies through reduced health-care costs, Baier-Anderson said.

A variety of federal requirements now taking effect for diesel engines and power plants are expected to continue the ongoing and gradual decline in U.S. ozone levels -- apart from anything tougher ozone limits might produce.

By early next year, states will have to designate which areas violate the EPA's ozone limits; by late 2013, they will have to have a plan for reducing ozone pollution in those areas.

The EPA will require states to actually meet the new standards sometime between 2014 and 2031, depending on the severity of an area's pollution.


More mass transit?


Joe Kahn, director of air-resource management for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said many urban areas are likely to take a hard look at boosting commuters' use of car pools and providing more mass transit -- measures designed to remove as many cars as possible from roads and highways.

As for a return to the days of mandatory tailpipe-emission tests for cars and trucks, that's probably not worth the effort, Kahn said, because the engines in today's cars run much cleaner than those just a few decades ago.

"There's just not a lot of benefit to doing that," Kahn said.

Dan Tracy can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 407-420-5444. Kevin Spear can be reached at 407-420-5062 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

 

 
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