For the first time in New England, an environmental group is suing a state and a federal agency for failing to bring ozone pollution levels under control. Ozone pollution is different from the ozone layer that shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone is a highly reactive form of oxygen, and ozone smog is formed when pollutants such as emissions from autos and house paint interact with heat and sunlight.
This smog is now one of New England's most serious air pollution problems. Last year, nine of the 14 ozone monitors in Massachusetts recorded violations of the national air quality health standard, which medical research has indicated may not even be strict enough to protect public health.
Major cities across the country are similarly afflicted, with California registering the worst level of ozone smog. In New England, Michael Deland, regional administrator for the New England branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says it is the only pollutant that still exceeds the standard.
In order to force reductions in ozone pollution, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit regional environmental group, has sued the EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for failing to take legally required steps to protect the public from harmful smog.
CLF attorney Cleve Livingston believes the outcome could determine how the EPA deals with all areas that don't meet the federal ozone standard. Both the CLF and EPA feel the suit will focus attention on what has become a national issue and force the EPA into action.
``It's an ongoing current health threat that needs to be taken seriously, but one which the public is not really aware of,'' says Mr. Deland. But, the problem is hard to solve because it is ``a function of how and where we live,'' explains Laurel Jenney Carlson, the chief program developer for Massachusetts' division of air quality.
Painting a house, driving a car and taking it to the auto body shop, open burning, and using asphalt or home boilers all contribute to ozone pollution. And while changing the way people live down to such detail may seem difficult, ``it's not impossible,'' says Ms. Carlson.
``Doing something about it,'' says Deland ``will test the commitment of the environmental movement in a fashion it has not been tested to date, on an individual level.''
Health officials say that, when breathed, this smog can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Summer ozone can pose a potential health risk to 2 million people in the Northeast.
Like acid rain, ozone is corrosive. In remote areas, it has contributed to the decline of forests, says Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
In a study of its white pines, Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, discovered that 58 percent of the 750 trees tested showed yellowing, a symptom of ozone injury, says Mary Foley, a forest ecologist. Carroll Shell, a research management specialist at Acadia, commented that very few people dispute a connection to ozone pollution.
With the passage of the Clean Air Act, the EPA attempted to set a national air quality standard for ozone. The law requires states to develop plans to achieve those standards, which the EPA must approve.
The deadline for reaching the standard is Dec. 31, 1987, and includes sanctions to be imposed on states that fail to submit adequate plans or to implement their plans.
These sanctions include a moratorium on construction of stationary sources of pollutants, such as gasoline pumps, power plants, and factories, and denial of Clean Air Act planning grants, federal highway construction funds, and sewage treatment plant construction funds.
In the suit, the CLF contends that Massachusetts failed to revise its plan when it became apparent that it was inadequate to meet the 1987 deadline. The state ``is required to go back to the drawing board if its plans do not work,'' CLF attorney Livingston explains.
The EPA is included in the suit because it failed to force the state to produce a feasible pollution control plan, and did not impose any of the outlined sanctions when Massachusetts did not make a revision.
The CLF accuses both the EPA and division of air quality of having put the blame on other states.
But states trying to fight the ozone problem are ``as frustrated with EPA as the environmental groups,'' Bruce Maillet, the head of Massachusetts' air quality division, was quoted as saying in a recent Boston Globe article.
While Deland of the EPA agrees that the CLF's accusations are basically correct, he disagrees that Massachusetts is totally to blame. ``In fact,'' he says, ``Massachusetts is further ahead than many of the other states.'' Pennsylvania is so far doing less to control ozone smog, he says.
``Massachusetts' problem is being effectively exacerbated by other states' emissions,'' argues Deland. ``It's a lot like acid rain,'' says Carlson of Massachusetts' division of air quality. ``No state is immune.''
The whole Northeast corridor is affected by ozone smog, and the ultimate solution, Deland stresses, lies with all of the Northeast states. By 1987, the whole East Coast will be in violation of the national health standard, a result of transported smog, or pollution that is carried up the East Coast on the winds.
The division of air quality reports that the worst ozone problems occur when winds from the southeast are blowing pollution in from the New York metropolitan area.
Carlson believes that overcoming this problem is feasible, and points out that past efforts have been somewhat successful.
``Our records in Boston show a definite decrease in ozone, which can be attributed in large part to our reduction techniques,'' she says.
Massachusetts has reduced emmissions by 50 percent over a six-year period. But states have a long way to go to reach their goals.
Since 1975, state and federal governments have been working to reduce the amount of ozone-forming pollutants. Because some of these `precursor pollutants,' as they are called, are themselves toxic, by controlling them, not only has ozone pollution been reduced, but multiple health benefits can also be seen.
But ``states are still trying to determine what steps will be worthwhile,'' says Carlson. Lowering the vapor pressure of gasoline sold, controls on the chemical industry, and controls on smaller industries are all under review. The smaller the industry, the harder it is to impose controls.