The town of Salmon, Idaho (population 3,100) is being done in by two medium-sized fish and one huge federal agency. Ironically, the fish are the town's namesakes. The presence of two endangered species of salmon in nearby waters forced the town's only real industry, a sawmill, to close two years ago. Now, says Mayor Stanley Davis, "We're the third endangered Salmon."
But it gets worse. Current EPA air pollution regulations have forced the now-impoverished town to convert one of its school's sawdust-burning heaters to propane, at a cost of a quarter million dollars. The other heater will cost almost a half million dollars to convert--if the town can find the money.
And it gets worse yet. Idaho has informed the town that Salmon will not be in compliance with proposed new EPA air pollution regulations, which could require the conversion of every home's heater. Salmon's population density, incidentally, is close to nothing--one resident per 500 acres. Its air pollution "problem" comes not from smokestacks but from dirt roads and the occasional forest fire on surrounding federal lands. "It's usually about as pristine as you can get," says Davis. "It's as if the EPA regulations are designed for us not to be here. We just can't comply." If it's any solace, Salmon will have a lot of company: Much of the nation won't be able to comply.
Call it the November Surprise. Three weeks after Bill Clinton was safely re-elected, the EPA unveiled proposals for what Industry Week has called the most "explosive" and perhaps most costly regulations the EPA has ever promulgated. The agency and its boss, Carol Browner, claim the new restrictions, purportedly based on the best information science has to offer, will prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually, head off 500,000 respiratory illnesses annually, and improve air quality for 130 million Americans. And not only will this cost us essentially nothing, it will boost the economy!
Sorry, but you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. In fact, the proposed standards will cost localities that try to comply a fortune. The EPA's bureaucratic tentacles will be extended into new areas--personal and geographic--that a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The effects of the proposals may cause some of us physical harm. And as far as the science is concerned, the EPA's position is so meritless that one of the nation's leading air pollution experts has called it the equivalent of "witchcraft."
The proposed standards, which the EPA intends to impose in final form in July and start enforcing in 2002, would become part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards of the Clean Air Act. They are aimed at reducing two types of pollution.
The first is particles in the air, called particulates. Particulate matter, abbreviated as PM, can be solid or liquid. It can be emitted directly, or it can be formed when gaseous pollutants (called "precursors") react. One common way of categorizing PM is by size. Thus "PM10" includes particles 10 microns wide or smaller. (A micron is a millionth of a meter, or one-hundredth the width of a human hair.) While the EPA now regulates only PM10, the new standards would also specifically regulate "fine particles," 2.5 microns wide or less, called PM2.5. Most PM2.5 comes from the precursors sulfur dioxide (largely from power plants and factories) and nitrogen oxide (mostly from power plants, factories, and vehicles). When these chemicals combine with oxygen, they are transformed into fine particulates.
The second type of pollution is ground-level ozone, better known as "photochemical smog." Ozone is formed when two different precursor gases, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs (mostly from vehicles but also from paints, barbecues, and industrial processes such as baking and dry cleaning), mix together and are "cooked" by sunlight.
The EPA readily admits, and has published data that clearly show, that the levels of all these pollutants are already dropping, as you can see from Table 1. The agency's annual report, released in December, showed that all six of its target pollutants, including ozone and particles, have been declining steadily for 10 years. Overall, the measured pollutants have decreased nationally by almost 30 percent, even as population has increased by 28 percent, and vehicle miles by 116 percent.
So why the new action? Because the American Lung Association sued the EPA on the grounds that the 1970 Clean Air Act says the administration must review its criteria every five years, and the EPA had not done so for particulates. The ALA won, but all it earned was a review. Nobody ordered the EPA to set a new, tighter standard; that was the EPA's own decision.
The agency also decided to propose a stricter ozone standard because, it said, there are factors common to both ozone and particulates emissions. But the same could be said of many other types of emissions, as Jack Gibbons of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has pointed out in urging that the ozone standard be delayed. Gibbons is one of many people, from scientists to administration officials to prominent liberal congressmen, who are only a little less outraged and befuddled than Mayor Stanley Davis and his Idaho neighbors. This time, maybe--just maybe--the EPA might not get its way.
Something in the Air
The current standard for ozone is no more than 0.12 parts per million (ppm) during the highest-level hour each day. An area may exceed this standard only three times over three years. In its new proposal, the EPA recommends a maximum of 0.08 ppm, averaged over eight hours. Under this new standard, the agency would take the third highest eight-hour concentration each year from each monitor, and average it with the third highest from that same monitor for the past two years. If that average is over 0.08 ppm at any monitor, the area would be out of attainment and must take action. If that confuses you, don't worry. It's not a big point of contention. In fact, even most EPA critics say that this is one part of the new proposal that makes sense, since an area is less likely to be tipped out of compliance due to unusual weather.
For most people, ozone becomes unhealthy--causing coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and so forth--well above the current EPA standard. These effects are usually temporary, and may always be so. Except for those exercising strenuously, few people notice their own reaction to ozone. But a small portion of the populace experiences significant loss of lung function at relatively low ozone concentrations. These people are called "responders," and it's quite possible that for some of them ozone causes problems all the way down to the so-called background level: No matter where you set the standard, some responders will suffer. But there aren't many of them. According to EPA estimates, in a city of 1 million, there might be three added summertime hospital admissions per day if the ozone level tripled from a background concentration of around 0.05 ppm to 0.15 ppm.
Even so, the new standard is so tough that according to the agency, it would more than double the counties out of compliance, from 105 to 228, and there could be many more. In at least some areas it would require eliminating essentially all man-made ozone precursors, and maybe even some natural ones: A significant amount of VOCs can come from green plants. Canada's version of the EPA, Environment Canada, commissioned a report in 1989 finding that the vast majority of the VOCs in that country's air come from plants, especially trees.