Federal officials announced a tougher national ozone standard Wednesday, which could push back the Valley's target date for clean air by six years, to 2030.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the threshold above which the corrosive summertime gas is considered unhealthy by about 6%. Federal officials said the new standard would prevent thousands of heart attacks and tens of thousands of acute lung problems, such as asthma attacks.
"I adhered to the law, I adhered to the science" in choosing the new ozone standard, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said.
Some scientists and health advocates called the step inadequate, noting that two of the agency's scientific advisory panels had recommended that the health threshold be cut by 12% or more.
"This new standard lets the polluters and the agencies off the hook, and sentences another generation of children to grow up breathing unhealthy air," said lawyer Paul Cort of the nonprofit Earthjustice in Oakland.
On the other side of the debate, electric utilities, oil companies and other industries also objected to the new standard, maintaining that the old standard is still adequate. The stricter standard for ozone will cost billions of dollars to reach, hurting the economy.
Many counties haven't been able to meet the current standard set a decade ago, said John Kinsman, senior director for environment at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents most of the country's power companies. "Moving the goalpost again will inflict economic hardship on those areas without speeding air quality improvements."
Legal action may follow the EPA decision, as it often does with new air standards, and that could delay Valley efforts to implement it.
"Lawsuits slowed down the current standard, which was set in 1997," said Donald Hunsaker, plan development supervisor for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "We put together the plan for that standard in 2007."
The district still must meet the cleanup goal for the current standard, which is clean air by 2024. It would then have six more years to meet the new standard.
The Valley is one of the two worst places in the country for ozone. The pollutant forms when nitrogen oxides from vehicle emissions combine with hydrocarbons or vapors from paint, gasoline and many petroleum-based products.
The Valley last year had 65 violations of the current ozone standard, second behind the South Coast Air Basin, which had 78. But the Valley's violations have led the nation in several of the previous years.
The current standard is 80 parts per billion; the new standard is 75 parts per billion. Environmentalists and health advocates said the standard should have been set somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion, as the EPA's advisory panels suggested.
An estimated 85 counties of the more than 700 that have monitoring stations exceed the current 80 parts-per-billion concentration, according to the latest EPA calculations. Those numbers include all eight San Joaquin Valley counties.
About 345 counties will exceed the tighter 75 parts-per-billion standard. The EPA will announce in 2010 the areas that do not comply with the new standard.
Plans for achieving the new standard will be due in 2013, officials said. The most polluted places, which include the Valley, will have until 2030 to clean up.
Valley district spokesman Hunsaker said he did not know yet how to get the additional pollution reductions needed.
"There's not a whole lot left to squeeze out" of local businesses, he said.
The EPA estimated that compliance with a 75 parts-per-billion smog standard would cost $7.6 billion to $8.5 billion a year and "yield health benefits valued between $2 billion and $19 billion."
"Benefits are likely greater than the cost of implementing the standards," the EPA said in a statement.
The federal Clean Air Act requires that health standards for ozone and a handful of other air pollutants not take costs into account.
But Johnson said that ought to change. He said the Bush administration plans to propose legislation to Congress to overhaul the 1970 law, which was amended in 1990, so that in the future costs can be considered when setting health standards.
Any such move is likely to be met with strong opposition in Congress. Health experts and environmentalists view the setting of health standards without consideration of cost as essential for assuring public health.
Such changes "would gut the Clean Air Act which has saved countless lives and protected the health of millions of Americans for more than 35 years," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.