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Federal officials Wednesday tightened the limits on the pollutants blamed for summertime smog, and made it almost certain that six Utah counties will face new regulations.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Steven Johnson announced the new ozone standards that had industry complaining about the billions of dollars in likely costs. He also made health advocates unhappy. They complained the new rules do not go far enough to make breathing healthier for millions of Americans.
Meanwhile, Utah air-quality regulators foresee big challenges in making sure the six counties - Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Box Elder, Tooele and Utah - comply with the limits on ground-level ozone. Gas stations, for instance, may face new requirements, said Cheryl Heying, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
"We're going to have to work to get there," she said. "But we've done that in the past, and we'll do it again."
About 345 counties nationwide are expected to be in violation of the new limits, which won't go into effect for at least five years. The annual cost to business could be as high as $8.5 billion, according to one EPA study. Another EPA study placed health-related savings at up to $19 billion per year.
Under what's called the 8-hour standard, areas that have ozone concentrations higher than 75 parts per billion (ppb) on too many days will have to look for new ways to cut ozone pollution.
The old standard was 80 ppb, and all Utah communities barely met it.
Ozone is an odorless, colorless gas that tends to be a problem in Utah in the summer. It is a mixture of chemicals - largely released from combustion engines used by vehicles and industry - that cooks in the summer sun.
It could hurt people with lung and heart conditions. It also makes breathing harder for the very young, the very old and people who exert themselves outdoors.
Johnson said that in deciding the new limit, he carried out the agency's responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect human health and well-being. But he added that he will recommend an overhaul of the federal air law, partly because current law does not allow a cost-benefit analysis that was requested by many who commented on the EPA's deliberations.
Lowering the ozone standard to 75 ppb would prevent up to 1,100 premature deaths a year, avert 1,400 nonfatal heart attacks and eliminate 5,600 hospital and emergency room visits, the agency estimated.
But health advocates and the EPA's own science advisory panel suggested even tougher limits - from 60 ppb to 70 ppb.
Utah Moms for Clean Air, a year-old advocacy group, was among those who urged Johnson to adopt the 60 ppb standard.
"Today, we needed the support of the federal government to provide an ozone standard that adequately protects the public's health," said Michelle Hofmann, a physician and co-founder of Utah Moms. "Unfortunately, they failed us."
The Utah Manufacturers Association also weighed in, telling Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. that tougher restrictions would hurt the state's economy.
UMA President Tom Bingham said Wednesday the EPA should have waited for the current standard to be implemented before introducing new ones that aren't proved to improve health.
"If they could show that this would mean huge benefits," he said, "then that would be a different story."
* THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this story