(03/18/2008)
The Environmental Protection Agency says the air in hundreds of U.S. counties is simply too dirty to breathe.

Wood County West Virginia is among three counties on the worst list in the state.

Data showed violations of the 75 parts per billion smog standard in Cabell, Ohio and Wood counties, EPA officials said.

Newer data, from the three-year period ending in 2007, also showed violations in Berkeley, Hancock, Kanawha and Monongalia counties.

EPA officials said the seven counties have a population of about 623,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The air was worse in 2007 in West Virginia, and is likely affecting a number of other counties.

The EPA is ordering a multi billion-dollar expansion of efforts to clean up smog in cities and towns nationwide, announcing a new, tighter standard for ozone last week.

Shortly after the new standards were announced, the Bush administration called off a press conference to make the announcement, making efforts to stop the new regulations.

"Never before has a president personally intervened at the 11th hour, exercising political power at the expense of law and science, to force EPA to accept weaker air quality standards than the agency chief's expert scientific judgment had led him to adopt," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private advocacy group.

The new EPA standard could lower the allowable concentration of ozone in the air to no more than 75 parts per billion, compared with the old standard of 80.

Many health experts say the lower standard still falls short of what is needed to significantly reduce heart and asthma attacks from breathing smog-clogged air.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson says the new standard will require 345 counties across the nation to make air quality improvements.

Electric utilities, oil and coal companies want to keep the old smog rule, saying the high cost of lower limits could hurt the economy.

"West Virginia still has not implemented a lot of the mandatory measures that have been adopted by its neighboring states," said Judith Katz, director of air protection for EPA's regional office in Philadelphia.

Ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms. Dozens of miles above the earth, it forms a layer that protects life from the sun's harmful rays. Closer to the ground, ozone is the primary component of smog.

Over the last few weeks, EPA has been under growing pressure from industry and the White House not to toughen the smog standard.

Industry groups blasted EPA's action, and it is unclear what will happen with the new standards with intervention from the White House.

"The costs are too high and the benefits too unclear to impose this new burden on America's manufacturers and employees," said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

"The Clean Air Act is not a relic to be displayed in the Smithsonian, but a living document that must be modernized to continue realizing results," Johnson said.

Still, Johnson has apparently caved to White House pressure.

If the current plan moves forward, federal officials will designate in 2010 which areas of the country do not meet the new smog standards.


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