In the decades since the federal Clean Air Act was approved, New Jersey has failed to meet the health-quality standard for ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog.
The state may, however, be getting another tool to deal with the pollution from cars, trucks, power plants, refineries, and other sources that contribute to the smog that often blankets the region during summer months. But that is not going to happen anytime soon.
Smog is no small problem. Exposure to ozone can pose threats to public health, harm the respiratory system and the heart, and aggravate asthma and other lung diseases. The pollution is particularly a problem for children and the elderly.
Last Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new smog standards — three years after shelving an initial plan — that aims to reduce the emissions that cause the problem.
The proposal would lead to a tightening of smog standards to better protect public health, according to the agency. Industry officials, however, say the existing regulations are protective of public health, and the cost to comply with the proposed standard could come to $270 billion or more a year, according to some projections.
Whether those standards are ever enacted remains the big question. The EPA has proposed major new air-quality rules clamping down on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, as well as mercury emissions from the same facilities. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by 21 states and industry groups opposing the mercury rule.
In addition, the Republican-controlled Congress taking over early next year is likely to try and block the initiatives, including the proposed smog standard.
The EPA argued that the proposal is aimed at updating standards last adopted in 2008 — even though the Clean Air Act requires it to review them every five years.
“Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk,’’ EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a press release issued by the agency.
Under the proposal, states would have to comply with the tougher standards between 2020 and 2037, depending on the severity of their smog problem. The agency plans to issue the final standards by October 1, 2015.
Environmental groups were pleased that the agency is acting to adopt the standards.
“They are late, but better late than never,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “These regulations are critical to protect public health, the environment, and help to control climate change.’’
Tittel also said the proposed standards could force New Jersey to reduce smog-forming emissions from vehicles, a problem his organization feels the state has neglected.
“This could be the straw to get New Jersey moving on transportation (sources), which we really haven’t done,’’ he said. The state’s efforts to clamp down on emissions from vehicles is a critical component of its plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas pollution and promote cleaner-running vehicles that don’t depend on fossil fuels.
Industry had a different perspective. It argued that the proposed standard could hinder oil and gas production, which has led to lower energy prices for consumers.
“Air quality has improved dramatically over the past decades and will continue to improve as EPA and states implement existing standards, which are the most stringent ever,’’ said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.’’
“Tightening these standards could be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public, with potentially enormous costs to the economy, jobs, and consumers,’’ he said.
The EPA said annual costs of the two proposed standards are estimated at $3.9 billion in 2025 and $1.5 billion for the lower standard.