Friday, Sept. 22, 2006 | The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised its national air-quality standards Thursday, a decision that was decried by the energy industry as too strict and health advocates and environmentalists as too lax.

It is unclear what effect the stricter regulations will have in San Diego County, as some confusion exists between local and federal officials. The EPA says San Diego County would have to develop a plan to comply with the new limit. But the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District says the federal government used old data to draw that conclusion, and that the county will not likely be affected.

The EPA’s decision Thursday reduced the acceptable daily exposure to fine particulate matter found in the air from sooty sources such as wildfire smoke and car and power plant emissions. The new limit nearly halves the number of particles it is acceptable to inhale in a day.

The fine particles, which are about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, can penetrate deep into the lungs and have increasingly been linked to aggravated asthma and respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Particle pollution is the main culprit behind the smoggy views in the country’s national and state parks.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson hailed the decision in a conference call with reporters. “The bottom line is that our air standards are more protective today than they were yesterday,” he said.

But groups such as the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association and the National Environmental Trust harshly criticized the reduction for not going far enough and ignoring the advice of the EPA’s own science advisors. Johnson said the government acted on standards wherever the underlying science afforded a clear consensus.

The EPA said the tighter standards will require 32 counties across the country – including San Diego – to develop new pollution-control measures by 2015. (An extension until 2020 is possible.) Those could involve retrofitting diesel engines and other sources of man-made emissions.

But Rob Reider, a spokesman for the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, which monitors and controls local emissions, said he believes the EPA made a mistake in its projections by including San Diego County.

Reider said he does not believe the new standards will affect San Diego, where airborne particulate matter has steadily decreased since monitoring began in 1999.

With the exception of one downtown San Diego air monitoring station, the region’s air monitors already show compliance with the new rule, Reider said. The EPA likely used old data to develop that 32-county list, he said. An EPA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

“We don’t think there’s going to be any regulatory impact on San Diego County,” Reider said. “… We’ve been experiencing an air quality improvement standard over the last few years and we expect that to continue.”

By the time the EPA implements the new limits in 2009, Reider said, he is “optimistic” all of San Diego’s air will be fully compliant.

That doesn’t mean the county is guaranteed to escape regulatory trouble. Weather, moisture and wind patterns – things that can’t be controlled by regulations – all play a role, Reider said. And he said the pollution control district will continue monitoring the effects of pollution from the 63,000 Mexican cars and trucks that cross daily into San Diego.

But Jan Cortez, vice president of research and environmental health at the American Lung Association of California’s San Diego and Imperial County office, questioned whether the region will be able to dodge the stricter limits. Growth, traffic congestion and new power plants will continue to increase emissions, she said.

Calling the EPA decision “a real disappointment for public health,” Cortez said more stricter limits are still needed. The use of cleaner fuels could help achieve those goals, she said.

In tightening its fine-particle rule Thursday, the EPA also eliminated a limit for annual exposure to bigger, coarser particles, which come from sources such as rural dirt roads and dusty industries such as construction. Some U.S.-Mexico border infrastructure projects have sought to reduce those particles with road-paving projects.

Eliminating the coarse-particle limit runs counter to some science suggesting that long-term exposure to those particles is bad for human health. But it is an area that still requires research, a public health expert said.

Ralph Delfino, an adjunct professor in San Diego State University’s School of Public Health, said “good evidence” exists linking exposure to coarse particles with ill health. But he acknowledged that controversy still exists about the magnitude of those particles’ impacts.

“Certainly it’s a good thing that they’re strengthening the [fine particle] standards,” Delfino said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to argue against that. There’s some question about the new coarse standards. Whether that’s going to protect people like asthmatics, it’s hard to say.”

While the EPA’s administrator said the government is “delivering cleaner air to all Americans,” some were more skeptical. Delfino said questions remain about whether the tighter standards, which are required by the Clean Air Act to be updated every five years, are strict enough.

“Our air quality problems will continue,” he said. “The problems will not go away with this. They may get better, but they won’t go away.”

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