Trump EPA retains ozone standards despite COVID-19 link to air pollution

WASHINGTON, Dec 23 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Wednesday finalized a 5-year-old air quality standard for ozone pollution despite calls by environmental groups to toughen the rule because people harmed by air pollution are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which retained the 2015 standards in the final month of U.S. President Donald Trump's term, said it had streamlined the review of the air standard and completed the rules within five years after the Obama administration proposed it, as mandated by Congress.

Long-term exposure to ozone can damage lungs and boost medical bills. It is emitted by vehicles, power plants, boilers, and refineries, and is a main component of smog.

Studies have shown that people who have suffered health problems from long-term exposure to air pollutants, including ozone, can face increased risk of getting COVID-19.

Ann Weeks, legal director at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, said it was "morally unconscionable" to finalize the rule during a respiratory pandemic, less than a month before EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler leaves his post.

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes over on Jan. 20, has promised to roll back actions that the Trump administration has taken to ease environmental regulations and to toughen standards on pollution.

The EPA move could be challenged by environmental and health groups in the courts.

The finalization limits ozone levels to 70 parts per billion (ppb). The Obama-Biden EPA had increased the stringency of the standard to that level from the 2008 standard of 75 ppb.

Lawmakers from industrial states praised the move saying it protects health while avoiding business costs as economies recover from the pandemic.

The standard "supports local communities now fighting to get back on their feet, while continuing to drive improved air quality under existing programs," said nearly 30 Republican U.S. congressional representatives in a statement.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Richard Chang

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