Tighter Smog Rules No Longer Just An Urban Concern

The Environmental Protection Agency released new smog rules this week in an effort to improve air quality around the nation. The tighter regulations have many suburban and rural areas concerned that they will not be able to comply, which means they may lose federal dollars.

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Cities are the largest emitters of ozone, the main ingredient in smog, and across the nation, urban areas have been the ones struggling to meet air quality standards while rural counties, which emit less ozone, have generally remained below smog pollution limits. But soon that may no longer be the case. The Environmental Protection Agency this week proposed a tighter ozone pollution standard and now many suburban and rural areas may be running into trouble with the Feds.

David Gorn has this report.

DAVID GORN: Some of the worst air pollution in the nation is in California. In fact, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Fresno consistently rank in the top 10 of the most polluted cities in the U.S. But if you go up to the far north of the state, in the mountains of Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border, the skies are clearer. But maybe not clear enough.

Mr. ELDON BECK (Air Pollution Control Officer): I don't think we've got the industrial activity and/or the population up here to have really created that situation as far as ozone goes.

GORN: That's Eldon Beck. He is sitting in his small Air Pollution Control Office up in the town of Yreka. Beck says it's a small operation up here, just him and his boss, who also doubles as the County Ag Commissioner and the Animal Control Officer. And Beck says he can't quite believe his county may soon be out of compliance with proposed new federal ozone standards.

Mr. BECK: Well, we're not very excited about that at all.

GORN: The current federal limit for ozone is 75 parts per billion. But the new plan is tougher, putting the ozone threshold at between 60 and 70 parts per billion. And that could send many more counties into non-compliance, which could eventually mean the loss of federal dollars, such as highway funding. This comes at a time when many suburban and rural counties are facing budget shortfalls and many are worried about more expense in a bad economy. But for Melissa Kelly-Ortega, living in the town of Merced, at the northern lip of the Central Valley, it might mean that her six-year-old can breathe a little easier.

Ms. MELISSA KELLY-ORTEGA (Bicycle Advisory Commission): The valley is actually like a bowl, so our pollution just sits here. In the summertime, what we're dealing with is ozone and smog and that's really a bunch of different types of pollutants, but then they're cooked by the sun. And so, we're kind of sitting in this big pot of pollution soup.

GORN: Ortega says her daughter has severe asthma because of it. Asthma and other respiratory diseases have increased as smog pollution levels have risen, says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association. Sometimes people think of these ailments as mildly inconvenient, but she says they are much more of a health threat than that.

Ms. JANICE NOLEN (National Policy & Advocacy, American Lung Association): There are actually people who die from asthma. This is the kind of thing where children are turning blue and they end up in the emergency room at night.

GORN: But keeping pollutants out of the air is not a simple task. For one thing, smog travels. So for instance, San Francisco with its sea breezes is far below the ozone emission threshold. But its smog blows east into Sacramento, where the terrain bottles up that smog into the Sacramento Valley. Up in Siskiyou County, Eldon Beck says some of their pollution is from forest fires and some of it likely comes from the nearby city of Medford. So, what is cash-strapped Siskiyou supposed to do about that?

Mr. BECK: Somehow we're going to have to develop a plan, I guess, to try to come into compliance, but it's going to be a big expense all the way around.

GORN: Just how stringent the new regulation will be is up for discussion. A series of public meetings will be held this year in part to decide what ozone level is fair as well as safe.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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