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EPA Outlines Actions to be Taken with States Not Meeting Clean Air Standards; Some Sanctions Mandatory

[EPA press release - April 7, 1987]

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lee M. Thomas today described the agency's strategy for dealing in the near term with states expected to fall short of meeting air quality standards for ozone and carbon monoxide. The Clean Air Act envisions the standards to be achieved by December 31, 1987.

In a letter to the governors of 42 states, Thomas said that "much long-term planning will need to be done to bring about necessary changes in some of the worst areas." In the meantime, the agency has devised a short-term strategy for the remainder of this year involving a phased approach to reviewing existing clean air plans for adequacy.

That strategy, outlined in the Thomas letter and companion letters from the 10 EPA regional administrators to state environmental commissioners, involves both state and federal reviews of approved plans, offers the possibility that some approved plans may be inadequate and have to be revised, and announces EPA's intent to disapprove "a number of [pending] plans which cannot provide a persuasive demonstration that they will attain the standard in the near term." The proposed disapprovals for pending plans will be announced for public comment late next month.

Referring to federally imposed sanctions in the case of a disapproved plan, Thomas said that for some of those area, the Clean Air Act "leaves us no choice but to impose the construction ban upon [final] disapproval, while highway, sewer, and air-program grant sanctions would be discretionary." The construction ban prohibits the building of major new polluting sources.

EPA estimates that about 70 areas of the country are currently not meeting the ozone standard. The agency expects that more than 35 major metropolitan area will probably fail to achieve the standard by the end of this year. While about 80 cities are not now meeting the standard for carbon monoxide, EPA expects that only a handful of cities will have long-term problems with carbon monoxide. Both standards are designed to protect public health from the adverse effects of the air pollutants.

In the letter to the governors, Thomas described EPA's plans to ensure that state and local agencies are implementing the commitments made in their approved clean air plans.

"Where [the agency] makes a finding of non-implementation, a ban on the construction of new polluting sources will be imposed, and air-program grant funds may be withheld," he said. "The imposition of sewer-grant sanctions would be discretionary in these cases."

In the letters to the state environmental commissioners, the agency further outlined the actions it would be taking between now and Dec. 31 to ensure effective program implementation. These letters listed some of the specific commitments made by states in their clean air plans and called for the states to review these commitments, as well as adopted rules and regulations for control of volatile organic compounds, to determine whether they have been effectively implemented. These state reviews will help both the states and EPA to identify the areas needing further implementation to achieve the full reductions anticipated in the state plans.

EPA has estimated that about 20 major metropolitan areas will have to reduce volatile organic emissions by 50 percent or more to attain the ozone standard of 0.12 parts per million.

Thomas said that over the next several months EPA will propose a more extensive program which "provides a reasonable approach to attaining our goal of maximum protection of public health, realizing that much long-term planning will need to be done to bring about necessary changes in some of the worst areas." That proposal will be opened for extensive public comment in August.

The EPA Administrator also promised that, as a part of the long-term program, the agency will "soon be proposing a control program, including aggressive federal measures such as gasoline marketing and gasoline volatility controls, to deal with nonattainment in a large number of areas."

Ozone is a photochemical oxidant and the major component of smog. While ozone in the upper atmosphere is beneficial to man by shielding the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation given off by the sun, high concentrations of ozone at ground level are a major health and environmental concern. Ozone is not emitted directly into the air but is formed through complex chemical reactions between precursor emissions of volatile organic compounds like hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight. Both volatile organics and nitrogen oxides are emitted by transportation and industrial sources. Volatile organics are emitted from sources as diverse as automobiles, dry cleaners, bakeries, auto body paint shops and other sources using solvents. Oxides of nitrogen are emitted in the combustion of fossil fuels.

The health threat from ozone is particularly serious for those who suffer from respiratory illnesses, but even healthy people can suffer adverse effects. High levels of ozone can also substantially injure animals and damage crops, forests and man-made materials.