EPA leaves ozone pollution standard unchanged

Environmental advocates urged tighter limits

Smog hangs over Los Angeles on June 11, 2019 in Los Angeles. The EPA declined to tighten limits on ground-level ozone on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Smog hangs over Los Angeles on June 11, 2019 in Los Angeles. The EPA declined to tighten limits on ground-level ozone on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Posted December 24, 2020 at 8:51am

The EPA announced its final decision Wednesday to leave ozone pollution standards right where the Obama administration set them in 2015.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters the agency had streamlined the process for reviewing air quality standards in order to meet an every-five-years deadline established by the Clean Air Act. The agency has rarely met that requirement, he added.

“Today’s announcement of ozone standards shows that EPA takes seriously the timely implementation of rules that is a core obligation of every environmental regulator,” Wheeler said.

Environmental and public health advocates criticized that streamlined approach as rushing the process and failing to adequately consider scientific input. They suggested tightening the standards would have better protected the public, particularly in light of indications that air pollution can make people more susceptible to COVID-19.

Ozone is the main ingredient in smog. 

Several former EPA officials issued statements criticizing the decision to retain that 2015 standard of 70 parts per billion.

“In developing the decision not to revise the ozone standard, EPA used the same corrupt and inadequate process for developing and reviewing science and policy issues as for the decision on particulate matter earlier this month,” said John Bachmann, a former official at the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. “They did not include a panel of experts on health and environmental effects of ozone and limited external science review to small group who were admittedly ill equipped to review all aspects of science and policy.”

[EPA move creates hurdles for future air, climate rules]

Wheeler defended the agency’s actions, saying it gathered independent scientific input and that there was substantial agreement that retaining the Obama administration’s standards was appropriate. The previous approach to reviewing the air standards would have taken 7 to 8 years to complete, he said, violating the legally required timeframe and opening the agency to court challenges.

Responding directly to Bachmann’s comments, he said that earlier process ran afoul of the law by taking too long.

“If anybody corrupted the process it was Mr. Bachmann when he worked here at EPA,” Wheeler said.

He noted the next five-year review window will start immediately so that any studies being published now, including those related to COVID-19, can be considered in that process.

“Science never ends,” Wheeler said. “There are always going to be new scientific studies coming out and as they come out we will plug them in to whichever review is ongoing at that time.”