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EPA says air pollution could persist past 2015 in some areas

WASHINGTON -- Many of the nearly 350 US counties in violation of federal air quality standards because of smog or soot are not expected to achieve compliance without more local pollution controls, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday.

Mike Leavitt, EPA administrator, told a Senate hearing that "well over half" of the counties are expected to be in compliance by 2015 because of tighter controls on diesel trucks and power plants. But the agency's preliminary estimates indicate that dozens of counties would not be compliant by then and that some areas with severe pollution would not be compliant before 2019, he said.

More than 110 million people live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone and 65 million people in areas with too much soot in the air, Leavitt said. Smog and soot are leading causes of severe respiratory illnesses.

Leavitt promised that by April 15 the EPA would produce a final list of counties that do not meet the more stringent air quality standards for ozone, the primary component of smog, and follow with a list of areas not meeting the soot standard later this year.

He produced preliminary numbers, based on data from 2000 to 2002, indicating that 346 counties -- mostly in the eastern third of the country and Southern California -- are in violation of one or both of the air standards.

"We will bring well over half of counties now monitoring nonattainment into attainment with the fine-particle [soot] and ozone standards between now and 2015," Leavitt said in testimony at a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing.

He said the EPA is focusing on reducing two major sources of pollution to clean up the air: a cap-and-trade program to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur releases from power plants and a requirement for cleaner diesel fuel and fewer of the large truck engines that contribute to pollution.

The tougher smog and soot requirements were issued in 1997 to address concerns that the old standards did not protect vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illnesses. Implementation has been delayed because of unsuccessful court challenges by the trucking and other industries.

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