False alert on smog

By Kay Jones and Joel Bucher
Copyright 1998 Washington Times
September 30, 1998

Yet another billion-dollar EPA regulation based on junk science has just been enacted with little public furor. The Environmental Protection Agency now is trying to stop what Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, New York Republican, calls "airborne terrorism."

However, this new breed of terrorist isn't from another continent or even part of a militia group. No, these attackers are allegedly bombing the skylines of Northeastern cities with smog, hurled hundreds of miles over Ohio and Pennsylvania from the smokestacks of utilities and industry in the Midwest.

Unfortunately for Sen. "Al," there is no scientific "smoking gun" to back up his claim.

EPA's own research shows there's little terror in Midwestern ozone, which leaves its effort to clamp down on utilities without merit. Such policies are nothing more than a thinly veiled political attack on Northeast states' economic competitors.

Scare tactics aside, Northeasterners should breath easy knowing they are exposed to less ozone smog today than in the past several decades. In New York City, for example, regulatory efforts were so successful that that area's smoggiest county, Fairfield, now exceeds national standards fewer than five days a year - down from 30 days a year in 1980. For comparison, Los Angeles' smoggiest county exceeds the legal limit by 70 days a year - Houston's 12-15 days a year.

Cleaner air would normally be a cause celebre. But just when America was making so much headway, the EPA tightened the standard for ozone smog in July 1997.

Unfortunately, reaching the new standard won't make the Northeast's air any cleaner. Attaining this arbitrary standard would cut New York City's hospital admissions from asthma a mere one one-hundredth of 1 percent, while costing that state millions of dollars that won't be spent on more pressing public health problems.

The EPA knew the tighter ozone standard was a tough sell to an overregulated Northeast, (EPA economists said it would cost the nation more than $9.6 billion annually.) So, the EPA's plan uses a new "regional" regulatory scheme that cleverly shifts the economic burden to the Midwest and Southeast. With this, the agency sold the Northeast on the new standard, claiming it: "should be enough to allow most of the new [noncompliant] counties in states . . . to be able to comply with the new standard." However, the agency later reneged, stating "At no time has the agency maintained that the ozone transport proposal and corresponding NOx trading program is designed to bring specific areas into attainment with the ozone standard."

The EPA even assured the Northeast it could avoid the dreaded "non-attainment status" (a term used by regulators to identify non-compliant areas in need of more regulation and by investors to signal an economic kiss of death.) Instead, a new quasi-legal "transitional" status was created, which allowed the Northeast to avoid increasingly expensive emissions controls on local car and truck owners and industry.

Convinced they could export the costs of compliance, the Northeast states have added to the EPA's regulatory threat to the Midwest, petitioning the agency to require pollution controls on specific coal-burning power plants. Conveniently, the EPA is now using the petition to threaten a federal takeover of the implementation process to recalcitrant states in the Midwest.

But EPA scientists never believed the "regional" plan would produce cleaner air in the Northeast, because very little Midwest ozone travels that far. According to a recent article in Environmental Management, the EPA's plan would bring only two of 25 urban areas in the Northeast into compliance with the new standard.

Ultimately, the real terrorists are EPA officials who foist $1.7 billion worth of regulation onto unsuspecting citizens, knowing full well that the impact on Northeastern smog will be negligible. Inevitably, crushing regulations on cars and trucks in the Northeast will be the real result of the EPA's tighter air quality standard for ozone.

Kay Jones, Ph.D., is head of Zephyr Consulting in Seattle. Dr. Jones also served at President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality as senior adviser on Air Quality. Joel Bucher is senior environmental policy analyst at Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation.

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