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Environmentalists threaten to sue EPA to force tougher air quality standards

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Environmental Protection Agency is ``dragging its feet'' in implementing tougher air quality standards, a group of environmentalists said Thursday while threatening a lawsuit.

The environmental groups formally notified EPA Administrator Christie Whitman that they planned to ask the courts to impose a timetable for the already five-year-old ozone regulation if steps are not taken within six months.

EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said, ``There is as much movement as we can spring on this'' considering the delays prompted by litigation that went all the way to the Supreme Court. He rejected suggestions that the agency was stalling on the rule.

He said the EPA planned to propose an ``implementation strategy'' this summer and have it finished next year. At the same time, he said, the agency is talking to states about developing a list of areas that will not meet the new standard.

The environmentalists said the EPA may take another two years or more to get that list ready.

The new health standard for ozone was issued in 1997, but had been entangled in litigation until last March, when a federal court rejected the remaining industry challenges. The Supreme Court upheld the new standard in February 2001.

Howard Fox, an attorney for Earthjustice, said at a news conference that ``in 60 days we're prepared to go to court'' if the EPA has not taken a key step _ determining what counties would be unable to meet the new ozone requirements.

``The ozone standard has been on the books since 1997,'' said Fox. ``They have to move forward on these designations.''

Among the groups threatening a lawsuit are the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Air Coalition and environmental organizations from Michigan, Ohio and Georgia.

``We're concerned the EPA is dragging its feet,'' said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust. ``Our hope is to light a fire under the EPA.''

The new ozone standard had been strongly opposed by industry groups, which fought them all the way to the Supreme Court.

The EPA, during the Clinton administration, began asking states to submit a list of counties that would not be able to meet the tougher requirements. But an initial court ruling against the rule _ one eventually reversed _ brought that process to a halt.

The 1997 standards limited ozone, a major component of smog, to 0.08 parts per million instead of 0.12 parts per million. It also required the pollution be averaged over an eight-hour period instead of one hour to better reflect actual air quality.
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