Hundreds of communities far from congested highways and belching smokestacks could soon join America's big cities and industrial corridors in violation of stricter limits on lung-damaging smog proposed Thursday by the Obama administration.
Costs of compliance could be in the tens of billions of dollars, but the government said the rules would save other billions — as well as lives — in the long run.
More than 300 counties — mainly in Southern California, the Northeast and Gulf Coast — violate the current, looser requirements adopted two years ago by the Bush administration and will find it even harder to reduce pollution enough to comply with the law.
"We knew this was going to happen," said Scott Nester, director of planning for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "This is basically a continuation of the strategy that's in place and being implemented.
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"We will be going back and evaluating how much we can leverage technology over the next few years to get those emissions down to the level they need to be at."
The new limits being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency could more than double the number of counties in violation and reach places such as California's wine country in Napa Valley and rural Trego County, Kan., and its 3,000 residents.
The tighter standards, though costly to implement, ultimately will save billions in avoided emergency room visits, premature deaths, and missed work and school days, the EPA said.
"EPA is stepping up to protect Americans from one of the most persistent and widespread pollutants we face," said agency administrator Lisa Jackson.
The proposal presents a range for the allowable concentration of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, from 60 parts per billion to 70 parts, as recommended by scientists during the Bush administration. That's equivalent to a single tennis ball in an Olympic-size swimming pool full of tennis balls.
The EPA plans to select a specific figure within that range by August. Counties and states then will have up to 20 years to meet the new limits, depending on how severely they are out of compliance. They will have to submit plans for meeting the new limits by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
Stronger smog standard
Former President George W. Bush personally intervened in the issue after hearing complaints from electric utilities and other affected industries. His EPA set a standard of 75 parts per billion, stricter than one adopted in 1997 but not as strict as what scientists said was needed to protect public health.
Some of those same industries reiterated their opposition Thursday to a stronger smog standard.
"We probably won't know for a couple of years just what utilities and other emissions sources will be required to do in response to a tighter ozone standard," said John Kinsman, a senior director at the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group.
"Utilities already have made substantial reductions in ozone-related emissions."
Environmentalists endorsed the new plan. "If EPA follows through, it will mean significantly cleaner air and better health protection," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.
The EPA estimates meeting the new requirements will cost industry and motorists $19 billion to $90 billion a year by 2020. The Bush administration had put the cost of meeting its threshold at $7.6 billion to $8.5 billion a year.
The new regulations would mean more controls on large industrial facilities, plus regulating smaller facilities and sources. New federal regulations in the works to improve car and truck fuel economy and curb global warming pollution at large factories will also help communities meet any new standards, the EPA said.
Smog is a respiratory irritant that has been linked to asthma attacks and other illnesses. Global warming is expected to make it worse, since smog is created when emissions from cars, power and chemical plants, refineries and other factories mix in sunlight and heat.
On the Net: www.epa.gov.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.