WASHINGTON - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt likes to crow that "clean air is a national success story." But his agency's own inspector general says the EPA and states have "not made sufficient progress" reducing smog in major cities. In fact, the level of harmful ozone emissions is increasing in some places.
"While EPA air trends reports have emphasized that ozone levels are declining nationally and regionally, only five of 25 non-attainment areas designated serious to extreme have experienced substantial downward trends in ozone levels," reads the Sept. 29 report by the independent auditing arm of the EPA.
Ozone is the most common air pollutant in urban areas and has been linked to asthma, respiratory illness and heart disease. Following passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the EPA set national "attainment" standards for ozone pollution and "non-attainment" cities that didn't meet the standards were required to submit plans on how they would improve air quality.
But the audit found only a handful of the cities with the worst smog have made any significant improvements. The recent downward trends in national ozone levels "may be more related to changes in weather patterns than emission reductions," the audit said.
The report made several recommendations how the EPA could ramp up enforcement of the ozone reduction goals required by the Clean Air Act. In a written response, EPA Assistant Administrator Jeffrey Holmstead said some of the suggestions "seem reasonable" and the EPA would investigate how to implement them.
"Other of the recommendations are good in theory, but practical considerations constrain us from implementing them," he wrote, specifying the lack of money in the EPA's budget.
Currently, 159 million Americans live in areas that do not meet the EPA's latest attainment standards for safe levels of ozone in the air they breathe.
The inspector general blamed the failure to cut ozone levels on the EPA's "limited oversight" of state plans, the lack of EPA rules requiring demonstration of cleanup progress, and the dearth of accurate emissions data for areas with severe smog problems.
One of the cities singled out in the report was Chicago, where the inspector general found that emissions of nitrogen oxides - a precursor to ozone - from nine aging coal-burning power plants around the city were only reduced 12.5 percent from 1990 to 1999, rather than the state of Illinois' claim of a 40 percent to 60 percent daily reduction. One plant actually increased nitrogen oxide emissions by 74 percent, or 16.5 tons per year, between 1990 and 1999, the audit found.
Participating in a recent online question-and-answer session from the White House, Leavitt was asked by "Bruce from Chicago" why the EPA under his tenure stopped investigating Clean Air Act violations at seven of the nine Chicago power plants.
"Bruce, we are making dramatic improvements in air quality in this country," Leavitt replied. "Last year, ozone levels were at record lows and our progress continues. . . . I challenge you to take a closer look at the Bush administration's clean air accomplishments."