Howard University researchers working with the Md. Dept. of the Environment launch a large weather balloon to monitor ozone pollution in 2012.
Howard University researchers working with the Md. Dept. of the Environment launch a large weather balloon to monitor ozone pollution in 2012. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The Obama administration announced Wednesday a long-anticipated move to tighten limits on smog-forming pollution, declaring that despite improvements in air quality in Maryland and nationwide, millions of vulnerable adults and children risk illness and even premature death from inhaling currently acceptable levels.

"Ground-level ozone or smog is a dangerous pollutant, and it can have very serious consequences on our families' health," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said in unveiling her agency's proposal to reduce the current standard for how much ozone in the air is safe to breathe.

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The announcement was criticized by industry groups and conservatives, who said it would drive up energy costs and hurt the economy. Republicans in Congress — already gunning for the EPA over its moves to regulate climate-altering carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants — have vowed to block it on ozone regulations as well.

The issue has particular importance in Maryland, where the Baltimore and Washington areas once suffered from some of the worst breath-robbing summertime smog in the nation. Ozone levels have declined sharply over the last two decades, to where much of the state now meets the current limit of 75 parts per billion. At the proposed lower limits of 65 and 70 parts per billion, though, the air virtually statewide would again be deemed unhealthy, requiring further reductions in smog.

"It will be quite difficult to meet, but not impossible," predicted Russell R. Dickerson, an air pollution researcher at the University of Maryland. "We are making excellent progress, and have for the past 10 or 15 years, driving down emissions from power plants as well as from cars."

Under the EPA's proposal, the color-coded air quality index used to alert the public of harmful pollution would be revised. Smog levels now classified as "moderate," or Code Yellow, would be downgraded to "unhealthy for sensitive groups," or Code Orange.

McCarthy said more than 1,000 studies in the past six years have shown that at the current ozone limit, the young, the elderly and those with asthma or other health conditions remain vulnerable to breathing difficulties.

In Maryland, nearly 159,000 children have asthma, health officials estimate, and nearly 400,000 adults. There were nearly 40,000 asthma-related emergency room visits in 2009, and more than 11,000 hospitalizations, the most recent numbers available. State officials say an average of 67 people die of asthma annually.

Environmentalists welcomed the EPA's move, which came a few days before a court-ordered deadline for the agency to decide whether to lower the smog limit.

"The public does deserve to know if the outdoor air is dangerous," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based group.

He said advocates plan to press the EPA to set an even lower limit of 60 parts per billion, which the agency's independent science advisers had suggested would be the most protective.

"Keeping the current standard would flunk a truth-in-advertising test," O'Donnell said.

McCarthy said she would consider setting the limit lower, but found more research supporting the smaller range of reductions. Tightening the ozone standard to between 65 and 70 parts per billion would avoid thousands of asthma-related emergency room visits nationwide, she said, tens or even hundreds of thousands of missed work and school days, and from 750 to 4,300 premature deaths.

Industry groups had campaigned to have EPA leave the current standard alone. They contend that tightening ozone limits would cost tens of billions of dollars to comply, driving up energy costs, eliminating jobs and crippling the economy. The National Association of Manufacturers said Maryland families, for instance, could pay up to 15 percent more for electricity and up to 32 percent more for natural gas if the EPA opted for the lowest ozone limit it's considering.

"The expense associated with the rule could reverse what economic gains we have seen recently," said Scott H. Segal, a lawyer with a Washington firm that represents utilities and other affected industries.

McCarthy dismissed such warnings, saying air pollution has been reduced 70 percent over the past four decades while the nation's economic output has tripled. She cited EPA estimates that the anticipated health benefits of tightening smog limits would be triple projected costs.

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The agency also expects that the lower smog limits will be met across much of the country as a result of federal and state air pollution regulations either already on the books or in the works — such as new requirements for lowering the sulfur content of gasoline and tighter "Tier 3" limits on car emissions. As a result, Harford County would the only Maryland community still expected to have unhealthful smog by 2025, the date EPA has proposed for complying with the lower limit.

George S. "Tad" Aburn Jr., chief air quality regulator for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said he believed lowering the smog limit would make it easier for the state to achieve healthier air. As much as 70 percent of Maryland's ozone-forming pollution comes from other states, where emission controls are not as stringent. The EPA's move would force those states to do more, he suggested.

"I think this will level the playing field a little bit," Aburn said.

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