The federal government is tightening the health standard for ozone pollution, or smog, but not by as much as many medical experts believe is needed to protect the elderly and young children.
On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the new ozone standard of 75 parts per billion. The decision has implications for counties in the San Joaquin Valley, which has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
The eight-county valley air basin exceeded the standard of 80 parts per billion on 86 days in 2006. The tougher standard will force the counties to come up with more ways to reduce pollution.
A panel of scientists recommended last year that the EPA set the standard at 60 to 70 parts per billion to protect people who are prone to respiratory problems. A similar conclusion was reached by a second advisory board on children's health.
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EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said he took those recommendations into account, but disagreed with the scientists.
"In the end, it is a judgment," he said during a conference call with reporters. "I followed my obligation. I followed the law. I adhered to the science."
Electric utilities, oil companies and other businesses had lobbied hard for leaving the smog rule alone, saying the high cost of lower limits could hurt the economy.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Tom Mayfield said the ozone standard should have stayed the same until technology is available to reduce further the emissions that create smog.
"You are not going to take care of the air pollution until you come up with a solution for the cars," said Mayfield, a former governing board member for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "They should find the answer and then try to (tighten the standard.) Right now, I don't think they have the answers."
Advocates for more aggressive action to clean the valley's air were critical of the decision. Under the EPA's timetable, the valley air district will have to develop a plan by 2013 for making further reductions to ozone.
"We don't meet the current standard and to wait five years for a plan is ludicrous," said Mary-Michal Rawling, program manager for the Merced- Mariposa County Asthma Coalition. "The people of the valley deserve better."
The northern areas of the valley have fared better in meeting the ozone standard set in 1997. Modesto exceeded the standard on eight days in 2006, compared with Fresno, which exceeded it 38 days, and Arvin in Kern County, which exceeded it 61 days.
The EPA expects that 345 counties in the nation will be in violation of the new smog standard, including Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne and other Sierra foothill counties. Stanislaus, Merced and 26 other counties in the nation likely will be violating the standard in 2020, according to an EPA projection.
In 2010, the EPA will begin a process of formally determining which counties are not attaining the smog standard. If the eight-county San Joaquin Valley air district is out of compliance, it will have three years to develop a plan and as many as 20 years to attain the standard.
Don Hunsaker, plan development supervisor for the valley air district, said most of the technologies to reduce ozone- causing emissions from industrial boilers and manufacturing processes are in use. One of the targeted pollutants is nitrogen oxide, which rises into the atmos-phere and reacts with sunlight to create smog.
"We have done all of the easy stuff," Hunsaker said. "Some of the (industrial sources of pollution) have been controlled two or three times. We keep going back to them to ask for more."
The biggest sources of ozone pollution are trucks and automobiles. Within the next 15 years, a natural progression should serve to improve the air, as diesel trucks and older cars are replaced by newer vehicles with cleaner engines, he said.
One strategy is to encourage the state to provide incentives for trucking firms to replace older diesel rigs sooner, he said.
The EPA by law is not supposed to consider economic costs in establishing the federal health standard for air quality. The agency has estimated that new pollution control efforts to comply with a 75 parts per billion standard would cost as much as $8.8 billion a year, although it acknowledged that does not take into account reductions in health care costs that could be even greater.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.