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Nine S.C. counties, including York, have ozone levels that exceed new EPA standards

COLUMBIA -- Columbia and several other urban areas around the state must redouble efforts to cut air pollution that has made it one of the smoggiest cities in South Carolina.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new ozone standards Wednesday night that many expect will put the Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg areas in violation of the smog rules.

EPA officials won't formally decide for two years which parts of South Carolina violate the new standards for ozone, a lung irritant linked to premature deaths.

But state records show nine counties, including Richland, Spartanburg and York, have in the past three years registered average ozone levels higher than the standard announced Wednesday. States will have until 2013 to develop cleanup plans for ozone, in areas that don't meet the standard.

The tighter rules come just three months after state regulators said the Columbia and Greenville areas had met existing standards for ozone pollution through largely voluntary efforts.

Few interest groups in South Carolina are satisfied with the new, tighter rules, particularly industrial leaders.

They fear that compliance will come at their expense and cause industrial recruitment to suffer. New pollution controls could be required that would cost them millions of dollars, they said. The tighter standards also could make it more difficult to receive federal highway funds for areas that don't meet the standard.

"We are very concerned," said Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturers' Alliance. Failing to meet the standards "could have a profound impact on South Carolina's ability to grow."

Environmentalists and public health activists said the EPA should have imposed tighter standards that were recommended by an agency scientific panel. Still, the federal action is a step in the right direction, said environmental attorney David Farren.

"This is all about public health," said Farren, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "How do you put a price tag on what it feels like to breathe healthy air?"

Ground-level ozone forms on steamy, summer days when pollution from cars and factories mixes with sunlight. People with asthma and other lung disorders find it particularly difficult to catch their breath on days with high ozone levels.

WHAT'S NEXT

The EPA will:

• Make a formal determination by 2010 which S.C. counties have failed to comply with clean air standards

• Give S.C. until 2013 to develop a plan to meet the stricter standard.

• Impose restrictions on S.C. if the state's plans to improve do not work. The one restriction the business community fears most is a limit on new air permits. That would make it more difficult for manufacturers to locate here and expand, costing the state jobs.

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