Friday, September 22, 2006

New air pollution rules rankle health groups

New air pollution rules rankle health groups
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government approved new air pollution standards on Thursday, promising "cleaner air to all Americans," but health and environmental groups said the revised rules are too weak to protect against lung disease and other pollution-related ailments.

Meanwhile, groups that represents U.S. electric power companies -- one key source of the particle pollution addressed by the standards -- said the new rules were too stringent.

Stephen Johnson, who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters: "Today EPA is issuing the most health-protective national air quality standards in our nation's history."

The new standards will reduce premature deaths, heart attacks and hospital stays for people with heart and lung disease and bring health benefits valued at between $20 billion and $160 billion a year, Johnson said.

Daily standards for the amount of particles in the air were strengthened by nearly 50 percent, he said. Previously, U.S. law allowed 65 micrograms of soot particles per cubic meter of air; the new rules call for a limit of 35 micrograms.

That reduction was less than what was sought by a broad coalition of environmental and health organizations, and a panel of EPA's own scientific advisers.

EPA's decision to keep annual standards for soot particles at the same levels they have been since 1997 -- 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air -- drew the ire of environmentalists, who had sought to have these strengthened.


"EPA's action is truly breath-taking in ignoring the dangerous impact of particulate pollution on Americans' hearts and lungs," Dr. John Balbus, health program director of the group Environmental Defense, said in a statement.

"By ignoring medical science, EPA is fundamentally failing to protect Americans from the serious death and disease associated with particulate pollution," Balbus said.

Dozens of health groups -- including the American Medical Association, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Academy of Pediatrics -- had urged the agency to set tougher standards for short-term and long-term exposure to particle pollution.

Particle pollution comes from vehicle tailpipes and factory smokestacks, and can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death from various heart and lung ailments.

Environmental opponents of the new rules said EPA's chief had ignored the recommendations of its key committee of scientific experts, but Johnson said there was no agreement on the panel as to what the level should be.

EPA's decision also rankled those representing U.S. electric utilities.

"The industry believed that the existing standards continued to meet the legal requirement for the protection of human health," said Joe Stanko, counsel to the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council.

Stanko said complying with the new standards would cost an estimated $20 billion to $60 billion a year. He said his group was considering possible legal appeal of EPA's decision.

States must meet these new standards by 2015, with a possible extension to 2020.