The state’s worst air pollution problem may take a bit longer to clean up.
The Environmental Protection Agency decided last week to put a year-long hold on implementing a rule designed to curb ozone-forming pollution from cars, trucks, and businesses.
Backing away from the tougher standard for ground-level ozone, more commonly referred to as smog, means it will be at least another year before New Jersey finds out whether it has achieved the federal health-quality standard for the pollutant.
The state has never achieved the standard in the nearly four-decade history of the federal Clean Air Act. Last year, there were 24 days when New Jersey exceeded the standard; ozone is a pollutant that is unhealthy for kids, the elderly, and those with respiratory diseases.
In a letter to governors, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the delay of the rule, which was adopted by the Obama administration in October 2015. It lowered the standard for ozone in air from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion.
In extending the deadline for determining what areas are failing to attain the new standard, the EPA is giving states more time to develop air-quality plans while providing greater flexibility to states as they develop those plans.
As the agency has since Pruitt took over as administrator, the letter focused on the consequences faced by states designated as “non-attainment,’’ including regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses.
But environmentalists criticized the move — the latest rollback of environmental initiatives since President Donald Trump took office. Previously, the administration scrapped increased fuel standards for cars and a plan to curb carbon pollution from power plants.
Ozone forms in hot, sunny weather, typically during the summer, when emissions from power plants, businesses, and vehicles “bake’’ to form smog, which blankets much of the state during heat waves.
“Ozone pollution is the largest public health threat in New Jersey,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “By not moving forward with the standard, it sends a message to states like New Jersey that the status quo is okay.’’
Since the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1980, the state has taken many steps to try and meet the standard, imposing the first-in-the nation auto-emissions inspection program, limiting emissions from power plants and factories, and imposing constraints on certain consumer products.
New Jersey officials say a big part of the state’s ozone problem stems from wind-blown pollution from other states with weaker environmental standards than here. Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Protection proposed a series of rules to clamp down on pollution from small turbines and stationary engines, the latest effort to achieve the standard.
But even that may not be enough without an effective 2018 rule, according to environmentalists.
“This rule would have helped New Jersey more than most states since we are at the end of the air stream and get a third of our pollution from out of state,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We are seeing more and earlier bad ozone days making it harder for people to breathe.’’