In our last post, we saw how EPA’s CASAC reacted strongly to its decision to make the secondary standard of ground-level ozone identical to the primary standard. That influenced EPA to reconsider its decision as reported in the document National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone, Final Preamble, 2011 (p. 215):
In reconsidering the 2008 final rule in the 2010 proposal, the Administrator agreed with the conclusions drawn in the 2006 Criteria Document, 2007 Staff Paper and by CASAC that the scientific evidence available in the 2008 rulemaking continues to demonstrate the cumulative nature of O3 – induced plant effects and the need to give greater weight to higher concentrations. Thus, the Administrator concluded that a cumulative exposure index that differentially weights O3 concentrations represents a reasonable policy choice for a secondary standard to protect against the effects of O3 on vegetation during the growing season. The Administrator further agreed with both the 2007 Staff Paper and CASAC that the most appropriate cumulative, concentration-weighted form to consider is the sigmoidally weighted W126 form.
As EPA noted before, the amount of protection the primary standard would give to vegetation is uncertain, but the hint is that EPA is now prepared to err on the side of regulation. In this excerpt (p. 216), EPA argues that we can’t be sure that the primary standard can protect vegetation as well as the W126 standard. A comparison is hard to make because the results of such a comparison would likely differ from year to year, and because we don’t have enough data in the areas where the secondary standard might do the most good, in rural areas. (The paragraph sign [¶] indicates a paragraph break that I introduced that wasn’t there in the original text. The “8-hour average standard” is the primary standard, which averages ozone readings taken during an eight-hour period.):
The Administrator noted that… EPA proposed a second option of revising the then-current 8-hour average secondary standard by making it identical to the proposed 8-hour primary standard. The 2007 Staff Paper analyzed the degree of overlap expected between alternative 8-hour and cumulative seasonal secondary standards using recent air quality monitoring data. Based on the results, the 2007 Staff Paper concluded that the degree to which the current 8-hour standard form and level would overlap with areas of concern for vegetation expressed in terms of the 12-hour W126 standard is inconsistent from year to year and would depend greatly on the level of the 12-hour W126 and 8-hour standards selected and the distribution of hourly O3 concentrations within the annual and/or 3-year average period.
¶ The 2007 Staff Paper also recognized that meeting the then current or alternative levels of the 8-hour average standard could result in air quality improvements that would potentially benefit vegetation in some areas, but urged caution be used in evaluating the likely vegetation impacts associated with a given level of air quality expressed in terms of the 8-hour average form in the absence of parallel W126 information. This caution was due to the concern that the analysis in the 2007 Staff Paper may not be an accurate reflection of the true situation in non-monitored, rural counties due to the lack of more complete monitor coverage in many rural areas. Further, of the counties that did not show overlap between the two standard forms, most were located in rural/remote high elevation areas which have O3 air quality patterns that are typically different from those associated with urban and near urban sites at lower elevations. Because the majority of such areas are currently not monitored, there are likely to be additional areas that have similar air quality distributions that would lead to the same disconnect between forms. Thus, the 2007 Staff Paper concluded that it remains problematic to determine the appropriate level of protection for vegetation using an 8-hour average form. [emphasis mine — MHK]
Now here is the real rationale behind the secondary rule: cumulative exposure hurts plants more than it hurts humans. But why that should be? That question I can’t answer. The document continues (p. 217):
The Administrator also noted in the 2010 proposal that CASAC recognized that an important difference between the effects of acute exposures to O3 on human health and the effects of O3 exposures on welfare [of vegetation — MHK] is that vegetation effects are more dependent on the cumulative exposure to, and uptake of, O3 over the course of the entire growing season (Henderson, 2006c). The CASAC O3 Panel members were unanimous in concluding the protection of natural terrestrial ecosystems and managed agricultural crops requires a secondary O3 standard that is substantially different from the primary O3 standard in form, averaging time, and level (Henderson, 2007).
That concludes the EPA’s rationale in the document. Again, it seems to me that the decision was based on a judgement call. You may agree with me that there is less of a moral imperative to safeguard property and crops than there is safeguarding human life, so when evaluating the secondary standard, it makes even more sense to compare gains and losses. True, a secondary standard might improve agricultural crops, but is it worth the additional cost to industry to maintain that standard? That question is especially hard to answer when we don’t know exactly how much benefit the secondary standard would bring us above and beyond the primary standard. It’s a very tricky question. More about this in my final comments on the subject. In the meantime, let’s discuss how EPA standards are implemented.