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EPA sets tighter smog limit, drawing flak from all sides

The Environmental Protection Agency tightened limits on smog-forming air pollution Thursday, saying the move is needed to protect the health of millions of children and adults with respiratory problems.

The decision promptly drew criticism from both ends of the spectrum. Environmentalists and health experts contend that the new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion isn't low enough to help many asthmatics and other sensitive individuals in Maryland and nationwide. Business and industry leaders, who had warned any tightening of the ozone limit could hurt the economy, denounced the action.

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The standard appears likely to keep pressure on Maryland to further reduce the state's already much-diminished air pollution. Baltimore, once second only to Los Angeles as the smoggiest urban area in the nation, has seen its summertime skies cleaned up so much over the past two decades that breath-robbing ozone levels now only rarely exceed the old ozone standard of 75 parts per billion. But federal officials said research has shown that that is not good enough to protect many from asthma attacks, illness and even premature death.

"The science tells us ozone is still making people sick, and we still have a lot of work to do," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Thursday.

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McCarthy announced her decision on the last possible day to meet a court-ordered deadline under a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, which were seeking to force the EPA to act.

Activists called the EPA's action "weak-kneed," after the American Medical Association and other health groups had called for setting the limit even lower, at 60 parts per billion.

"It will allow thousands of deaths, hospitalizations, asthma attacks and missed school and work days that would be prevented by the much stronger standard supported by medical experts," said David Baron, a lawyer with Earthjustice. He predicted that activists would go to court again to challenge the limit as inadequate to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

The EPA projected that the new limit will have prevented more than 230,000 asthma attacks in children nationwide by 2025, tens of thousands of days of missed school and work and nearly 700 premature deaths.

Activists pointed out that by the EPA's own reckoning, a 60-parts-per-billion limit would prevent many times more attacks, illnesses and deaths.

"The big polluters won this time, for the most part," said Clean Air Watch's Frank O'Donnell. He noted that the EPA's own independent scientific advisers urged the agency to adopt a lower limit than it announced Thursday.

McCarthy's predecessor, Lisa Jackson, had proposed lowering the ozone standard to 65 parts per billion, but the White House put the move on hold in 2011, calling for further review — which was what prompted the environmentalists' lawsuit.

Congressional Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, expressed disappointment. Cardin called the announcement "a missed opportunity for the EPA to do more to protect the health of millions of Americans."

McCarthy defended her decision, saying she had based it on a review of nearly 2,300 studies and 430,000 public comments. While there was solid evidence of a need to lower the limit, she said, there were uncertainties about the health benefits of the lowest recommended level.

"I did the best with what I have," McCarthy said.

Business and industry groups, which had mounted a publicity and lobbying campaign against changing the limit, decried the move as unwarranted and even unattainable in some parts of the country.

Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the standard "will inflict pain on companies that build things in America — and destroy job opportunities for American workers."

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He called on the Republican-controlled Congress to block the EPA's action.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, called the move "yet another example of government overreach."

"These new standards are technologically difficult to achieve and will burden many across the country with new and unexpected costs; killing jobs and weakening the economy," the Baltimore County lawmaker said in a statement.

McCarthy rejected such criticism, saying the health benefits far outweigh the costs of reducing smog. The EPA projected costs of $1.4 billion nationwide annually to meet the ozone limit by 2025, with benefits ranging from $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion a year.

It will be a couple of years before regulators determine precisely which areas need to do more to reduce smog. But ozone levels in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford, as well as six other Maryland counties, have exceeded the new limit in recent years, according to the EPA.

The EPA chief said current regulations and pollution programs should reduce ozone levels enough in most of the nation to meet the limit. Harford's air would still be out of compliance, according to agency data.

Maryland Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles said his staff is confident the state can meet the new pollution standard without great difficulty.

He said new emission limits in the works for Maryland's coal-fired power plants, along with new federal limits on vehicle emissions and fuel, should help reduce smog in the state.

Environmentalists have sued the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, for pulling back from stricter power-plant limits set last year by departing Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.

Activists contend that the MDE's new proposed limits are a sop to NRG, a New Jersey-based energy company that had warned it would shutter two of its power plants if the O'Malley limits were enforced.

Grumbles says the new state rule will be at least as protective, while also giving power plants greater flexibility in how to comply.

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