Three and a half months after declaring that the health of Toledo-area residents was being jeopardized by too many fine-soot particles floating in the air, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called a time-out and gave a second thought to what it had said.
Its new conclusion: Never mind.
The agency yesterday identified Toledo as one of 12 metropolitan areas that it should not have found in violation of its new 2.5-micron standard for fine-particle pollution in mid-December. The change of heart affects people in 21 counties and nine states.
Those areas will be redesignated as being in compliance for that pollutant category, something which may not mean a lot to the layman but makes a world of difference to officials trying to stimulate the economy through industrial growth.
Industries aren't forbidden from locating in or expanding in a region out of attainment for any one of the six major forms of pollution the U.S. EPA regulates under the Clean Air Act. But being out of compliance for any one of them is an economic disadvantage because of the additional costs for pollution controls.
The Toledo area, defined as Lucas and Wood counties, continues to be among nearly 475 counties nationally that are out of compliance for ground-level ozone, which causes smog.
In regard to soot, yesterday's announcement brings the number of counties out of compliance down from 225 to 204. The District of Columbia also remains out of compliance.
The Youngstown-Warren area was among those deemed back in compliance for soot.
Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) responded with glee to the news that Toledo now has one less strike going against it in terms of industrial recruitment.
Both took credit for working behind the scenes to get the U.S. EPA to reconsider its action on soot.
"The economy-strangling limits that come with a nonattainment declaration won't be imposed on the region, and I'm glad to have helped prevent that," Mr. Voinovich said.
Miss Kaptur said the new findings "point to an improving quality of life for our residents as the air we breathe begins to show the benefits of both industrial and individual efforts to curb particulate pollution."
The U.S. EPA's new standard for soot regulates particles is 2.5 microns or less, about 1/30th the width of a human hair.
Spokesmen for Mr. Voinovich and Miss Kaptur said their bosses successfully argued that the U.S. EPA should not have used 2003 as the cutoff year for making the designations.
The agency told them it did so because it would have had to rely on incomplete 2004 data to meet its court-ordered deadline for the mid-December soot designations.
But did the U.S. EPA really miscalculate? Or did politics come into play?
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council is among the skeptics.
"It sounds like the new designation is based more on political science than medical science," he grumbled.
Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch in Washington said he's encouraged by signs that legitimate progress is being made against air pollution.
"But it's too soon to breathe easy," he said, noting a report issued last week by the New York University school of medicine, which listed 100 of America's leading scientists in a group that claims more should be done.
The U.S. EPA has said its 2.5-micron standard took seven years to develop.
Most particles that fine come from coal-fired power plants, manufacturing facilities, and vehicle exhausts, the agency has said.
Tiny as they sound, the microscopic soot particles are among the most dangerous forms of air pollution because they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and cause a lifetime of respiratory distress - even death, the EPA has said.
Bhrat Mathur, acting administrator of the U.S. EPA Midwest region, has said the new soot standard alone could prevent 15,000 premature deaths a year as well as 75,000 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, 20,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis, "hundreds of thousands" of aggravated asthma cases, plus 10,000 fewer hospital admissions.
- TOM HENRY