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Groups sue over Obama blocking smog rule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Public health and environmental groups on Tuesday sued the Obama administration, challenging the president's decision to block new air pollution rule recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency's top science advisers.

Lawyers for the American Lung Association and other groups filed the suit in federal court in Washington over a White House decision last month to block EPA from issuing new nationwide limits on smog.

"The rejection of stronger standards was illegal and irresponsible in our view," said David Baron, an Earthjustice lawyer who filed the suit. "Instead or protecting people's lungs as the law requires, this administration based its decision on politics, leaving tens of thousands of Americans at risk of sickness and suffering."

Also this week, West Virginia joined a coalition of 25 states in filing a "friend of the court" brief in a separate case, seeking to delay EPA implementation of the first-ever nationwide limits on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw signed onto the brief, which urges EPA to "more carefully consider" the rule, citing "serious and far-reaching consequences."

The EPA proposal, issued in March, was more than 20 years in the making, but utilities say the timeline for compliance is too short. EPA is set to finalize the rule in November, but its limits would not be in full effect until 2014.

On the smog rule, Obama had cited "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens" in blocking the change, which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson -- supported unanimously by her agency's outside science advisers -- said was needed to replace an inadequate Bush administration rule.

Smog, also know 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 concerns about 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.

The Bush EPA rejected recommendations from an agency clean-air advisory panel to tighten the smog standard to somewhere between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Instead, the agency opted for the weaker standard of 75 parts per billion, prompting lawsuits and petitions for reconsideration.

In January, Jackson announced EPA was moving forward to rewrite the Bush standard, and proposed a number of between 60 and 70 parts per billion. Depending on the exact number chosen, as many as eight counties in West Virginia were among hundreds nationwide expected to be in violation of the new standards. Those included Berkeley, Cabell, Greenbrier, Hancock, Kanawha, Monongalia, Ohio and Wood.

The Clean Air Act prohibits EPA from considering costs when setting air pollution standards. Standards are supposed to be set based solely on public health considerations, and costs can be considered later in the process, when stare regulators are coming up with plans for meeting the standards. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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