WASHINGTON — The air in hundreds of U.S. counties is simply too dirty to breathe, the government said Wednesday, ordering a multibillion-dollar expansion of efforts to clean up smog in cities and towns nationwide.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced it was tightening the amount of ozone, commonly known as smog, that will be allowed in the air. But the lower standard still falls short of what most health experts say is needed to significantly reduce heart and asthma attacks from breathing smog-clogged air.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson called the new limits "the most stringent standards ever," and he said they will require 345 counties, including Hillsborough, out of more than 700 that are monitored to make air quality improvements.
Johnson said that state and local officials have considerable time to meet the requirements — as much as 20 years for some that have the most serious pollution problems.
Johnson's decision is likely to be met with sharp criticism from health experts, and some members of Congress accused the EPA chief of ignoring the science. The new standard goes counter to the recommendations of two of the agency's scientific advisory panels.
The new EPA standard will lower the allowable concentration of ozone in the air to no more than 75 parts per billion, compared with the old standard of 80, which was enacted in 1997.
The EPA estimates that Hillsborough County registers a three-year average of 80 parts per billion, based on monitored air quality data from 2004 to 2006. Pasco County's average of 75 parts per billion is at the new maximum, while Pinellas County's average is 73 parts per billion. Hernando and Citrus counties do not have air monitors.
The science panels had told the agency that limits of 60 to 70 parts per billion are needed to protect the most vulnerable, especially children, the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses.
Johnson said he disagreed with the scientists.