Obama announces tougher air quality standards aimed at cutting smog

The Department of Water and Power San Fernando Valley Generating Station is seen on January 7, 2010 in Sun Valley, California. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a proposal to lower the allowable amount of pollution-forming ozone from 75 to between 60 and 70 parts per billion for any eight-hour period.

David McNew, Getty Images

Last Updated Nov 26, 2014 1:02 PM EST

The Obama Administration has proposed strengthening air quality standards aimed at reducing asthma and other deadly lung conditions, a decision welcomed by health groups but attacked by the business community which fears the move will decimate the economy.

Saying the decision included a review of more than 1,000 studies on ground-level ozone done since the last update six years ago, the EPA proposed Wednesday to lower the standards to within a range of 65 to 70 parts per billion (ppb) to "better protect Americans' health and the environment" and will consider a level as low as 60 ppb. The standards were last updated in 2008 when the EPA set them at 75 ppb.

"Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. "Our health protections have endured because they're engineered to evolve, so that's why we're using the latest science to update air quality standards - to fulfill the law's promise, and defend each and every person's right to clean air."

The move brought quick praise from Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association.

"Today's proposal by the Obama Administration to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone would provide greater protection to millions of Americans from the nation's most pervasive air pollutant - a step that is long overdue," Wimmer said in a statement. "We are concerned that EPA did not include 60 ppb in the range ... The scientific record clearly shows that a standard of 60 ppb would provide the most public health protection. We will continue to push the Agency to adopt standards based on the scientific evidence."

Business groups, which had called for no changes in the standards, said the proposal would cost $270 billion a year, place millions of jobs at risk and put much of the country out of compliance.

"This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers and closing off counties and states to new business by blocking projects at the permitting stage," said Jay Timmons, the CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Jack Gerard, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, insisted the current standards are adequate to protect Americans.

"Air quality has improved dramatically over the past decades and will continue to improve as EPA and states implement existing standards, which are the most stringent ever," said Jack Gerard, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

"Careful review of the science shows that the current standards already protect public health," he said. "Tightening these standards could be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public, with potentially enormous costs to the economy, jobs, and consumers."

The EPA said that most counties would meet the standards by 2025, though it conceded 558 as of today would be out of compliance. Most of those counties were in California, which because of its unique geology would have until at least 2032 to meet the new standards, or in parts of the Northeast.

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EPA

In its review, EPA said it had concluded the current standards of 75 ppm "can pose serious threats to public health, harm the respiratory system, cause or aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and is linked to premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes."

Ground-level ozone forms in the atmosphere when emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds "cook" in the sun from sources like cars, trucks, buses, industries, power plants and certain fumes from fuels, solvents and paints.

Low-income communities are especially hard hit by ozone, since they often have to work and live within site of trucks, factories and other sources belching out pollution. Asthma, for example, is widespread in many poor communities due to ozone

EPA now will seek public comment on the proposal for 90 days following publication in the Federal Register, and the agency plans to hold three public hearings. It will issue a final ozone standard Oct. 1, 2015.

If the 65 to 70 ppm standards are enacted, the EPA projected they would prevent from 320,000 to 960,000 asthma attacks and from 330,000 to 1 million missed school days. They also said the standards would saved up $6.4 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025 from avoiding asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school days and premature deaths.

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com