EPA Proposal Will Allow Increased Air Pollution From Highways

On October 23rd, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to change the rules that help keep highway construction programs consistent with pollution limits in adopted plans to control ground-level ozone or "smog." Today's proposal, which is subject to public comment before becoming final, is designed to address the transition to the revised ozone standard adopted by EPA in 1997. Highways remain one of the largest sources of health-threatening air pollution.

"Starting next year, EPA's action will allow states to disregard established pollution limits from air pollution control plans and instead let highway emissions grow sharply back to the levels in 2002, rather than ensuring continuing further progress in pollution reduction, as the law requires," said Michael Replogle, Environmental Defense transportation director. "This illegal action removes accountability for the pollution impacts of new sprawl-inducing new highways, shifting pollution clean up costs to small businesses and consumers and delaying attainment of federal air quality standards."

"EPA's proposal would remove critical public health protections in vulnerable areas across the U.S. before the new smog standard are fully implemented," said Replogle. "The nation needs a sensible, protective transition to the new health-based smog standard, not a rollback of existing clean air safeguards."

EPA proposes to weaken a key Clean Air Act program in areas now required to maintain compliance with the one-hour ozone standard. The program, dubbed "transportation conformity," is a safeguard against deteriorating air quality due to transportation-related projects. It ensures, for example, that major new highway projects are consistent with pollution limits set to meet health-based air quality standards. EPA's proposal would rescind in April 2005 the pollution limits adopted by dozens of metropolitan areas under the 1-hour ozone standard, well in advance of establishment of new pollution limits designed to protect public health under the 8-hour ozone standard. These areas could then approve new transportation plans so long as transportation emissions are less than 2002 levels. This will trigger approval of many more sprawl- and pollution-inducing highway projects without adequate pollution controls.

EPA strengthened the ozone standard in 1997 to improve protection of children and other vulnerable populations from air pollution that can lead to respiratory ailments, hospital admissions and possible long-term lung damage. EPA estimates that 291 counties, with a population of about 120 million people, have monitored violations of the standard, based on the agency's 1999-2001 data.

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