EPA tightens air quality standards

March 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A major change by the federal government came on Wednesday afternoon, designed to protect your health. The Environmental Protection Agency announced it's updating the Clean Air Act to tighten federal ozone standards, but critics are saying the agency didn't go far enough.

What this means for the Bay Area is that we could see more Spare the Air Days this coming summer and see our federal highway funds jeopardized if we don't find ways to keep our air cleaner.

It's been the same since 1997, the amount of smog-producing ozone in the air allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, now set at 80 parts per billion. That's ten parts higher than the California standard of 70 parts per billion. Now, the EPA announced it will tighten its standard to 75 parts per billion. A number that will also be the new trigger for Spare the Air Days here in the Bay Area.

"It's going to be a real tough hoe. We're going to have increased regulations and increased pleadings with the public to try to do more," said Mark Ross from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Ozone forms when emissions from hydrocarbon vapors and nitrogen oxides react chemically in the presence of sunlight and heat. In the hot summer of 2006, the Bay Area exceeded the state ozone standard 22 times, and the looser federal mark, 12 times. With a tighter federal standard on the way, the Bay Area may be out of compliance much more often.

"The federal standards have sanctions in terms of federal highway money, that can really be punitive for the Bay Area, probably close to $800 or $900 million dollars per year," said Ross of the BAAQMD.

The new federal standard is still looser than what the EPA's own scientists recommend for ozone, implicated in heart attacks and respiratory ailments, among millions of Americans.

"We'd like to see the standard to be at 60 parts per billion, which is a stricter standard, a better standard than proposed today, because we see people still getting sick at 75 parts per billion," said Serena Chen with the American Lung Association of California.

In the Bay Area, about 60 percent of the ozone pollution comes from cars, the rest is from painting, aerosol sprays, leaf blowers and from heavy industry, including local refineries. And then there is the Port of Oakland, landlord to an army of diesel trucks.

"Although the Port of Oakland is not a major contributor to smog, by the year 2020 the port has a plan to reduce the health risk from diesel particulate matter produced at the seaport by 85 percent," said Libby Schaaf, Port of Oakland.

Alameda County is a county that's been teetering on the edge of not being able to comply with federal standards over the last several years. The EPA included Alameda County in among more than 300 counties that may fall out of compliance with the new standard, if they don't find ways to cut air pollution in years to come.