The Environmental Protection Agency has decided it will reconsider the 2008 ozone standards issued by the Bush administration, with the agency suggesting in a court that it would toughen the standards because it has concerns about whether standards “satisfy the requirements of the Clean Air Act.”

In a statement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency needed to reconsider the primary and secondary ozone standards to ensure that they are scientifically sound and adequately protective of public health.

“This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment,” she said. “Reconsidering these standards and ensuring acceptable levels of ground-level ozone could cut health care costs and make our cities healthier, safer places to live, work and play.” In addition to reviewing the more than 1,700 scientific studies and public comments that the Bush administration relied on in issuing the standards, Jackson said EPA would consider the findings of EPA’s independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which recommended stronger smog standards than were adopted by former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

The agency vowed to move quickly on its reconsideration, saying it will propose any revisions to the ozone standards by December and issue a final decision by August 2010. To reduce confusion for states over compliance with federal air standards, EPA said it would propose to stay the 2008 standards for the purpose of making attainment and nonattainment determinations in polluted urban areas.

Johnson issued a final rule on March 27, 2008, tightening the national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone from the 84 parts per billion (ppb) set in 1997 to 75 ppb.

While the 2008 standard is more protective than the 1997 NAAQS, it is significantly less protective than the 60 ppb recommended unanimously by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and backed by the American Lung Association and more than a dozen other public health organizations.

A number of states and environmentalists subsequently challenged the rule, saying EPA disregarded clear scientific evidence that a stronger standard is needed. Utilities and other industry groups also challenged the rule, saying it is too stringent.

The Obama administration first signaled it likely would move to strengthen the standard when the Justice Department in March asked a federal court to freeze legal challenges to the standard to give EPA time to decide whether the standard should be “maintained, modified or otherwise reconsidered.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the delay, and Justice officials filed a follow-up brief saying the agency would reconsider both the primary standard, which is aimed at protecting public health, and the secondary standard, which is designed to protect the environment.

“EPA has concerns regarding whether the revisions to the primary and secondary NAAQS adopted in the ozone NAAQS rule satisfy the requirements of the Clean Air Act, and thus EPA will reconsider the ozone NAAQS rule through notice and comment rulemaking,” the filing said.

John Walke, clean air program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he expects EPA’s December proposal of new standards to strengthen the primary ozone standard to fall within the 60 to 70 ppb range recommended by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. He also said he expected the agency to strengthen the secondary standard, which was left unchanged by the Bush administration from 1997 levels.

George Lobsenz is the editor of COAL POWER’s sister publication, The Energy Daily.