The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tightened its restriction on ground-level ozone standards, and while that may be good news for public health in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere, the change met complaints from industry, which sees it as burdensome and a threat to businesses and jobs.
The EPA on Thursday adopted a new standard limiting ozone to 70 parts per billion over eight hours, down from the previous standard of 75 parts per billion.
Ozone is a reactive gas that is harmful to lung tissue, especially for the elderly, children and people with certain health conditions. It forms as ground-level oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react in the air. Major sources of NOx and VOC include emissions from factories, electric utilities and motor vehicles, as well as gasoline vapors and chemical solvents.
The San Joaquin Valley is especially prone to ozone accumulation because of its bowl-like shape and a climate that includes frequent temperature inversions, hot summers and stagnant, foggy winters, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The bowl tends to collect the vehicle emissions generated in the Valley, as well as from the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley.
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The EPA recognizes the ozone problem is more severe in some areas than others. While some areas will have about five years to adapt to the new standard, the agency is giving the San Joaquin Valley until 2037 to do so.
Areas that fail to meet the new standard could see cuts in federal highway funding.
According to supporters, the new federal standard will help improve the health of the general population and will be especially beneficial for at-risk groups.
“Put simply – ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement Thursday. “Our job is to set science-backed standards that protect the health of the American people.”
The California Air Resources Board said the new standard is especially critical in the San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast, which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties. Together, these regions are home to nearly two-thirds of the state’s residents. A large number of these people also work outdoors.
The updated ozone limits could result in a number of benefits, including fewer premature deaths, thousands fewer missed school and work days, and a reduction in visits to the emergency room, EPA officials said. The agency also estimates annual savings of $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion in health care costs in 2025.
Despite what seems to be a step in the right direction for public health, not everyone is happy about the stricter levels.
The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, has been vocal about its opposition to tighter ozone standards, calling the proposal “burdensome, costly and misguided.”
“The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America – and destroy job opportunities for American workers,” said Jay Timmons, NAM president and CEO, in a statement. “Now it’s time for Congress to step up and take a stand for working families.”
But even those who pushed for stronger ozone restrictions were not completely satisfied with the new 70 parts per billion standard. The American Lung Association said an ozone limit of 60 parts per billion would have been a stronger limit, as it offers more health protection.
Under the new standard, the association said, many sensitive populations will still be at risk on “moderate code” days.
Despite dissatisfaction on both sides, the EPA said the change was necessary to comply with the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to review standards every five years to ensure it is keeping up with the latest science.
The California Air Resources Board estimates the new standard will be beyond the reach of several rural counties, adding to the state’s existing 16 “non-attainment areas.” The San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast, according to the board, are the only two air basins considered “extreme” non-attainment areas.
The Valley usually leads in number of days exceeding the federal eight-hour ozone standard.
To meet the new air quality standard, more pollutant reduction is needed. To aid in these efforts, the air board is proposing strategies that include establishing requirements for cleaner technologies, requiring cleaner-burning renewable fuels and promoting zero-emission technologies for cars, trucks and off-road equipment.
Now it’ll just be a matter of time to check if the efforts are enough to help the Valley meet the updated air quality standards and if the pollution limits are actually strong enough to improve health as supporters claim.