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WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency proposals to tighten air pollution standards will face congressional challenges this month, with hearings and a U.S. House investigation into whether the agency's rules are justified and will provide health benefits worth the cost of implementing them.

The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. told EPA officials that ``imposing the burdens that these proposed decisions are likely to bring, without first exploring the impact of these decisions, is unreasonable.''

Maureen Healey, SPI's director of federal environment and transportation issues, said in a Jan. 28 telephone interview that tougher rules would, by EPA estimates, triple the number of counties around the country, to 335, that do not meet ozone standards. Eastern Ohio, and central and western North Carolina would be particularly hard hit, she said.

Nonattainment areas could face more extensive permitting and stricter restrictions on business expansion, including requiring businesses that want to expel more pollutants to make greater ``offsetting'' reductions in emissions in their plants or elsewhere in their region, she said.

Predicting the impact on specific segments of the industry or on individual plants, including estimating cost for compliance, is difficult, she said. EPA estimates the cost for all industry will be between $6.6 billion and $8.5 billion with benefits of between $70 billion and $120 billion by 2007. Healey said SPI did not have a breakdown on costs for the plastics industry.

The EPA proposed new standards in late November that would lower the allowed concentration of ground-level ozone and would regulate particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller. Currently, the agency regulates particles 10 microns or smaller.

``The EPA proposal would provide new protection to 133 million Americans, including 40 million children,'' said EPA Administrator Carol Browner. ``EPA has based its proposal on a thorough review of the best available science.''

Final rules will be issued in June.

But scientific evidence to support the health benefits and EPA procedures in developing the rules have raised questions on Capitol Hill, including a probe from Rep. David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., chairman of the Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs, part of the House Committee on Government and Oversight. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and one of its subcommittees plan hearings on the science issues in February.

McIntosh, in a Jan. 24 letter to Browner, said the agency has not ``considered the impacts of the proposed rules on family-run businesses and other small entities.''

Aides said it is too soon to tell if McIntosh and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety, would introduce legislation under the Congressional Review Act to overturn the EPA proposals.

Besides congressional questions, SPI's Healey said ``a lot of the fight will develop at the state and local level'' where the rules must be implemented.

Ohio Gov. George Voinovich has asked Congress to force EPA to conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis.

SPI wants the EPA to conduct more research and evaluate the impact on small businesses: ``I'm not sure we want to stop it but we think it needs to be based on arguments grounded in science,'' Healey said.

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