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Ozone Déjà Vu

The Obama Administration’s refusal to listen to its scientists reared its ugly head last month when the President in early September abandoned plans to strengthen nationwide limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

But that wasn’t the only scientific sell-out we’ve seen of late.  And it wasn’t the worst.

Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency also rejected calls from its scientists to strengthen federal air quality standards for carbon monoxide.  A close cousin of ozone, carbon monoxide isn’t just lethal, it contributes to global warming and even forms smog.  The key source of carbon monoxide is fossil fuel combustion.

Current carbon monoxide standards limit concentrations in the air to no more than 9 parts per million over an eight-hour period and 35 parts per million over a one-hour period.  They were first adopted in 1971, over 35 years ago, and since then numerous studies have found that these standards should be stronger.

In fact, as EPA was reviewing the carbon monoxide standards, the agency’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee expressed “its preference for a lower standard,” noting its concern that the EPA was “underestimating CO [carbon monoxide] exposure among some vulnerable groups, especially persons with low income status.”  In a 2010 letter to the EPA, the Committee stated, “there is consensus in the Panel that the current standards may not protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, and therefore revisions that result in lowering the standards should be considered.”

The Committee also found that “there is substantial evidence that CO [carbon monoxide] has adverse effects on climate.”

This is a big deal because the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set air quality standards based solely on what is necessary to protect public health and the environment.  This means that if the science says stronger standards are needed to protect public health, then stronger standards need to be adopted.

So how did the EPA respond to this science?   It ultimately decided to keep the current standard, which was adopted in 1971, on the books.  The agency even had the gall to claim there was no scientific evidence indicating stronger carbon monoxide standards were necessary.

This wasn’t a matter of simply rejecting the science, as President Obama did on the ozone standards.  In this case EPA outright ignored the science.  The EPA’s decision is so egregious that yesterday, WildEarth Guardians joined Communities for a Better Environment in filing suit over the standards.

And while ignorance may be bliss for the EPA, it’s certainly not for the breathing public.

In its review, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee urged the EPA to consider strengthening the 8-hour standard to as low as 3 parts per million and the 1-hour standard to as low as 5.

Data from the EPA shows that if the 8-hour standard was lowered to 3 parts per million, a number of major urban areas would be in violation, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland.  And if the hourly standard was lowered to 5 parts per million, Anchorage, Alaska, Boise, Idaho, Billings, Montana, El Paso, Texas and more would also be in violation.

Science matters, and while the EPA may reject calls to strengthen air quality standards, the sad truth is that the carbon monoxide decision puts millions at risk.

Ultimately though, while EPA may not listen to its scientists, the reality is they will have to listen to a federal judge.  Hopefully we’ll be able to set things straight and continue to put this nation on track for cleaner air.

Carbon Monoxide Pollution over the United States and Canada Carbon monoxide concentrations measured by NASA over the U.S. on June 8, 2011.

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