Arizona is now one of five states suing the Environmental Protection Agency over an updated provision within the Clean Air Act.
While Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich calls the change “unreasonable” and “nearly impossible for Arizona to attain,” environmental groups are applauding the effort, and say the new rule will go a long way to improve public health.
Every five years, the EPA reviews what’s called the ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard, the regulation that specifies how much ground-level ozone is permissible, and determines whether to change the figure.
On October 1, 2015, the EPA announced it was reducing the NAAQ ozone levels from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion because “science on ozone and health shows that the 2008 standard isn’t strong enough to protect public health as the Clean Air Act requires.”
According to the EPA, “The updated standards will improve public health protection, particularly for at-risk groups including children, older adults, people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma, and people who are active outdoors, especially outdoor workers.”
Ozone exists in two atmospheric levels: in the stratosphere it helps block harmful rays from the sun, but at ground level, it is harmful to breathe and causes smog and other ecological damage.
The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit don’t contest the public-health risks of too much ground-level ozone but are instead upset about the new nationwide ozone standard because they believe it will unfairly burden certain areas of the country.
“We all want clean air; however, reducing the ozone standards to 70 parts per billion will be nearly impossible for Arizona to attain [and] the new rule completely ignores Congress’ intent that the EPA set ozone levels for the states that are actually attainable,” Brnovich said in a statement.
He went on to say that the change “will have little to no effect on the quality of life for most Arizonans [and that] the rule also will cause serious financial harm to those states that are unable to comply, including the potential loss of highway funds.”
According to the EPA, “Under the Clean Air Act, highway funds can only be withheld if states don’t turn in approvable plans for meeting the ozone standard – or they don’t turn in plans at all.” Since 1980, the EPA has imposed highway-funding sanctions 11 times — and all but one have been lifted.
A statement from the AG’s Office also explains that the new standard will be particularly “challenging for the State of Arizona in that the largest source of ozone-causing emissions are vehicles.
“In the United States, only the federal government and California have the authority to set vehicle emission standards. This leaves Arizona with almost no reasonable emission reduction options, particularly in rural counties where ozone is more related to transport from other states and Mexico.”
But environmental advocates in the state, like Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, think arguments like Brnovich’s are misguided:
“Lost in the Attorney General's flurry of lawsuits to challenge the Clean Air Act, is any kind of focus on clean air and public health. High ozone levels are a serious public-health threat in Arizona. The new standard is not even as stringent as public-health experts recommended but is a step in the right direction,” Bahr writes to New Times in an e-mail.
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"Attorney General Brnovich might also be interested to know that the serious health issues associated with air pollution cost us a lot of money and are bad for the economy. People lose days at work and school, and healthcare costs go up as well. As with most issues, prevention is cheaper and better.”
A study conducted by the environmental research group, Worldwatch Institute, found that in the United States, “air pollution causes as many as 50,000 deaths per year and costs as much as $40 billion a year in healthcare and lost productivity.”
“Those who would sacrifice our health and well being for the short-term profits of a few have consistently argued that taking actions to improve air quality and protect public health cost too much and will harm the economy,” Bahr writes.
“They have been wrong. They are wrong again.”