South Carolina could see tougher EPA smog regulations

Most metropolitan areas in South Carolina face potentially tougher air-pollution rules that critics say will make it harder for industries to locate or expand in the Palmetto State.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it will review a national smog standard to see if the rule is strong enough to protect human health. The Bush administration toughened rules last year, but an independent panel of government scientists had recommended even stronger limits on ground-level ozone, or smog.

If the Obama administration determines that the Bush smog rules are inadequate, the EPA would set a tighter limit that could push Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg, Aiken-Augusta, Florence and Charleston out of compliance with federal standards, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is tracking the proposal. The Bush rules have not taken effect.

"What this is aiming to do is clean up the air," said Cat McCue, a spokeswoman for the law center.

Larger cities, like Charlotte and Atlanta, have fallen out of compliance with the current standard. But smaller metro areas across the South will have to take smog seriously going forward.

Columbia and Greenville already faced the prospect of falling out of compliance under the Bush rules. A tougher standard under Obama would make that even more likely. A tighter standard also could easily push Charleston out of compliance for the first time, the law center says.

Scientific studies show ozone aggravates asthma and other breathing disorders, and in some cases, can cause premature death. Tighter limits on ground-level ozone would require South Carolina to develop ways to reduce the smog, created mostly when pollution from cars and industrial plants mix with sunlight on hot summer days.

But toughening the standard also could force new and expanding businesses to spend more money on pollution controls.

Otis Rawl, president of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said that is an important concern during tough economic times. Industries interested in South Carolina might go to other countries, where smog standards are looser, he said. Rawl said the EPA should see how the Bush rules work before toughening the smog standard even more.

"In an economy where we have virtually 12 percent unemployment, every new job and every manufacturing job we can create in South Carolina means somebody is off the welfare lines and the unemployment lines," Rawl said. "I just worry whether this is really going to help us from an economic-development standpoint, not only as a state but as a country."

The EPA will propose any changes to tighten the Bush ozone standard by December and issue a final decision in August 2010.

Frank O'Donnell, with the environmental group Clean Air Watch in Washington, said he would be "astonished" if the Obama administration doesn't make the standard tougher.

The rule at issue centers on how much ozone is harmful to human health. The existing maximum standard is 84 parts per billion. The Bush plan drops that to 75. The scientific panel recommended the standard be no higher than 70 parts per billion.

DHEC officials say it's too early to speculate whether the EPA will tighten the standard or how that might affect metro areas like Charleston, Greenville and Columbia.

Renee Shealy, an air-quality regulator with the agency, noted that ozone levels fell noticeably in much of South Carolina this year. That could affect any final decision on the Bush standard or a new one the EPA may come up with. She said the lower levels could be attributed to milder summer weather and efforts by the state and federal governments to curb pollution that contributes to ground-level ozone.

"We've seen some of the lowest ozone levels in the Southeast" since May, Shealy said. "In 2010, we hope we can continue the same."

David Farren, an air-quality specialist with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said this year's weather is atypical of summer in the South. If ozone levels go up next summer, it would surely put Columbia and Greenville out of compliance, but Charleston might also be affected for the first time.

The coastal city is undergoing a major port expansion approved by state regulators that environmentalists say will hurt the area's air quality. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control issued permits for the expansion in an area of North Charleston that contains heavy industry and many residents. Some claim poor air quality there already is affecting their health.

In a statement this week, EPA Administration Lisa Jackson said ozone pollution hurts human health and re-examining the limit is worthwhile.

"This is one of the most important health measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment," she said. "Smog in the air we breathe can cause difficulty breathing and aggravate asthma, especially in children."