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Obama blocks EPA smog rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citing "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens," President Obama on Friday blocked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing a tougher smog standard a panel of EPA scientific advisers said is needed to protect public health.

The White House sent the proposal back to the EPA "for reconsideration," but said the president "made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time."

Obama's move stops EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson from revising a Bush administration ozone standard she told Congress in July would not survive a court challenge. The decision comes amid continuing pressure from business leaders and Republicans in Congress, and as Obama himself has begun to speak much more critically about government limits on industry.

"The Obama administration knows the heavy cost of smog pollution, but has made the terrible decision to leave outdated, weak standards in place, leaving thousands of Americans who suffer from lung and breathing problems at the mercy of this dirty air," said Martin Hayden, vice president of policy and legislation at the group Earthjustice.

In West Virginia, at least eight counties were among hundreds nationwide expected to be in violation of smog standards being considered by the EPA, the agency had said. Those counties are Berkeley, Cabell, Greenbrier, Hancock, Kanawha, Monongalia, Ohio and Wood.

Smog, also known as ground-level ozone, is not emitted directly into the air, but forms when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds cook in the sun. Power plants, vehicle exhaust and many kinds of factories are major sources of ozone-causing emissions.

A decade ago, amid growing evidence of smog's damaging effects on human health, the EPA tightened the smog standard to 80 parts per billion. However, implementation of that standard was delayed for years by litigation, including a lawsuit joined by West Virginia to block tougher pollution limits on power plants and other industry.

Stephen Johnson, President George W. Bush's EPA chief, rejected recommendations from an agency clean-air advisory panel to tighten the smog standard to somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Johnson opted instead for the weaker standard of 75 parts per billion, prompting lawsuits and petitions for reconsideration.

In January, Jackson announced her agency was moving forward to rewrite the Bush standard, and proposed a number of between 60 and 70 parts per billion.

"Smog in the air we breathe poses a very serious health threat, especially to children and individuals suffering from asthma and lung disease," Jackson said at the time. "Using the best science to strengthen these standards is a long overdue action that will help millions of Americans breathe easier and live healthier."

In the White House statement, though, Obama noted that -- even before Jackson's January proposal -- the smog standards had been proposed for re-examination in two years anyway.

"Work is already under way to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013," the president said. "Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered."

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said Obama "recognized that [the] EPA was considering an ozone rule that was inappropriate given already-scheduled reviews due to take place under the Clean Air Act."

Segal added, though, that industry remains concerned about a variety of other EPA proposals, including efforts to regulate toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants and require greenhouse gas reductions from utilities and industry.

"As the president prepares his remarks for his jobs speech," Segal said, "we need more of this common sense -- but today was a good start."

In the White House statement, Obama appeared to praise some of those other EPA efforts and said his administration would oppose efforts by Congress to weaken environmental protection laws.

"I want to be clear: my commitment and the commitment of my administration to protecting public health and the environment is unwavering," Obama said. "I will continue to stand with the hardworking men and women at the EPA as they strive every day to hold polluters accountable and protect our families from harmful pollution. And my administration will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken [the] EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act or dismantle the progress we have made."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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