Environmentalists watching S.C. to see if it joins smog rule fight

South Carolina was asked Thursday if it will sue to stop tougher federal smog pollution rules in what environmentalists say is an attempt by industry to rally support against the standards.

The smog rules, announced last month, are intended to cleanse the air of ground-level ozone that makes breathing difficult during hot summer days.

But industrial leaders say the stricter rules could require expensive, multi-million dollar upgrades on industrial plants — and make it harder for South Carolina to get federal highway funds for cities such as Columbia and Greenville. Those cities are in jeopardy of falling out of compliance with the rules for ozone, or smog.

On Thursday, the National Association of Attorneys General asked South Carolina about suing to stop the rules after receiving a request from officials in Mississippi. The email said South Carolina and six other states, including Georgia and Alabama, had expressed interest in filing suit.

Gov. Mark Sanford was among 11 governors who signed a letter in December opposing the smog standards, but whether his opinion sparks a lawsuit was not known Thursday. Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said he was not aware of the email forwarded Thursday by the National Association of Attorneys General.

"It would not be surprising that some states are considering legal action,’’ Sawyer said. "We are still going through the regulations to see the long term implications for the environment and for economic development.’’

Officials with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office said they had received the email. Mark Plowden, a spokesman for Attorney General Henry McMaster, could not say if his office would sue to stop the rules. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is not interested in joining such a suit, spokesman Thom Berry said.

Ground-level ozone forms on hot days when pollution from cars and factories mixes with sunlight. Ozone can cause asthma attacks and make it difficult to breathe for people with other lung disorders.

John Walke, an air pollution specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Sanford would be wrong to oppose the rules because of the impact smog has on people’s health. It could be five years or more before the rules would affect many communities, he said.

"The governor is on record, siding with polluting industry lobbyists over scientists about how clean the air needs to be to protect the public,’’ Walke said, adding that the request by Mississippi "is absolute recruitment’’ to fight the rules.

Officials in Mississippi didn’t comment Thursday on whether they are recruiting states to fight the standards, but they weren’t shy about their distaste for the rules.

"This is a stab in the back,’’ said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who argues in a recent letter that states have worked hard to meet the current standards only to see them get tougher. "At a time when the national economy is softening, if not shrinking, it is plain dumb to stifle economic growth, as this decision clearly will.’’

The EPA announced tighter rules last month for ground-level ozone. The rules are tougher than the current standard, which angered industry, but not as tough as many environmental groups wanted.

Frank O’Donnell, director of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, said the new standards need to take effect without legal challenge.

"It would very disappointing if South Carolina joined such an effort,’’ he said, adding that "science is unequivocal’’’ that the standards need to be tougher.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.