WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection agency told officials in 31 states Thursday they must develop new pollution controls because the air in some of their counties, home to more than 150 million people, does not meet federal health standards.
The EPA, acting under court order, identified all or parts of 474 counties that either have air that is too dirty or that contributes to neighboring counties' inability to meet the federal air standards for smog-causing ozone.
Most of the countries are in the eastern third of the country, although California -- a state with some of the toughest air pollution requirements -- continues to have the worst air problems with four regions designated with either "severe" or "serious" air pollution.
The new standards "are strong medicine" and "will require more actions on your part to achieve cleaner, healthier air," EPA administrator Mike Leavitt said he told governors of the states.
Ground-level ozone, a precursor to smog, has been found to be a serious health problem, causing respiratory illnesses. It can be especially damaging to the elderly, children and people with asthma, according to health advocates.
The EPA said that the regions in noncompliance may have to impose new controls on industrial plants, restrict transportation and require tougher vehicle inspection programs to clean up their air. Some counties also may have to require the use of special, cleaner-burning gasoline.
The EPA already has said it will take actions to reduce pollution from power plants and announced Thursday, in a companion regulation, new requirements aimed at curtailing pollution over parks and wilderness areas. The rule, which would affect power plants and industrial facilities, is aimed at reducing haze in 156 parks and wilderness areas in 35 states.
"This isn't about the air getting dirtier. The air is getting cleaner," said Leavitt. "These new rules are about our new understanding of health threats, about our standards getting tougher and our national resolve to meet them."
The county designation has been long awaited, ever since the EPA in 1997 issued tougher health standards for ground-level ozone and fine soot because of concern that the requirements were not adequately protecting the elderly, children and people with respiratory illnesses.
Deadlines for meeting the air quality standards range from 2007 for those with the least serious problem to 2021 for areas with the dirtiest air.
The EPA said the Los Angeles basin had the worst smog problem, the only region to be placed in the "severe" pollution category. Three other regions of California -- Riverside County, San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento -- were designated as having "serious" pollution and have until 2013 to meet the standards.
The other counties have from "marginal" to "moderate" dirty air and will have three to six years to come into compliance. Areas that continue to violate the standard could face sanctions including a loss of federal highway funds.
"Many communities will find it difficult to eventually meet such standards without jeopardizing local economic growth," said Jeffrey Marks of the National Association of Manufacturers. He said more than half of the country's manufacturing capacity is located in areas that do not meet the air standards.
Nat Mund of the Sierra Club said the EPA designations "show that more than half of all Americans live in places with unhealthy air ... Americans face a serious air pollution problem."
The counties in nonattainment included most of California, a ring of states around the Great Lakes, and a concentration of Northeast states from the Washington, D.C. area to Boston. Also failing the federal test are parts of eastern Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio areas in Texas.
Leavitt said despite the widespread notifications of noncompliance "many states received good news."
He said 2,668 counties met the standards. And 19 states had all counties in compliance: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
The 1997 regulations, which were delayed for four years because of a lengthy court challenge that eventually went to the Supreme Court, allow less ozone in the air, from 120 parts per billion down to 85 parts per billion. They also require air sampling over an eight-hour period instead of only one hour, making compliance tougher.
The Supreme Court upheld the standards in February 2001. Environmental and public health groups such as the American Lung Association and Environmental Defense sued to force government into action.
Leavitt was under a court-ordered deadline Thursday to release the list of non-complying counties and the categories they fall in.
On the net:
The EPA listings are available in Microsoft Word format at: