On some days in parts of the Northeast, things can only get worse.

So much pollution drifts in - some of it from hundreds of miles away - that certain localities would exceed federal clean air standards even if corks were stuck in every smokestack and tailpipe in the area.

Nearly a quarter century after the passage of the nation's first Clean Air Act, summertime ozone remains an elusive problem for many areas, despite tougher regulations and threats of federal sanctions.

While improvements have been made, more than 30 states - and localities that are home to 90 million people nationwide - fail to meet the standard. Outside California, the worst region is the Northeast, stretching from the Virginia suburbs of Washington through Maine.

Now, a group with no legal standing, no regulatory authority and no statutory mission may be the best hope for clearing the air, at least in the eastern half of the nation. The collection of state and federal officials, environmentalists and industry representatives is known as the Ozone Transport Assessment Group.

OTAG represents all 37 states east of the Rocky Mountains, most of which either have problems attaining the EPA's standard for ozone - the key component in summertime smog - or contribute to other states' problems. By early next year, this unlikely coalition hopes to agree on control measures that will, once and for all, bring all the eastern states into compliance.

"It's a unique effort," said Tom Helms, leader of the Ozone Policy and Strategy Group of the EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. "I've been in this field for 30 years, and I've not seen anything like this to date."

Few people have heard of OTAG, but its conclusions could affect almost everyone east of the Rockies. Utilities and industries may have to install new clean air controls, automakers could have to build cleaner cars, refiners could have to make cleaner gasoline, and more drivers may have to get more extensive emissions testing on their autos.

The outcome could bolster the Bay cleanup as well. Ozone controls are likely to focus on nitrogen oxides, or NOx, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake is the result of air pollution landing on the Bay or its 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Nitrogen and another nutrient, phosphorus, are considered to be the most important Chesapeake pollutants. They spur algae blooms, which block sunlight needed by important underwater grasses that provide food and habitat for many species. When the blooms die, they sink and decompose in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed by fish, crabs and other creatures.

While the Bay states of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania have made progress reducing phosphorus, Bay nitrogen levels have remained steady. But reducing the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay through the air is difficult. According to computer modeling done for the Bay Program, about 75 percent of the NOx impacting the Bay comes from outside the watershed, and about 60 percent comes from outside the Bay states.

Because far-off pollution sources are a problem, representatives from the Bay Program and other coastal areas have made presentations at OTAG meetings showing how NOx controls aimed at reducing ozone could have the added benefit of protecting water quality.

Under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the strongest regulatory tools available to control NOx relate to ozone.

"If we're going to make some progress in reducing nitrogen atmospheric deposition to the Bay or its watershed, the only game in town is really the ozone connection," said Rich Batiuk of EPA's Bay Program Office. "That's where the action is happening right now."

Benefits of additional emission controls may not stop there. "When you control utility emissions and automobile emissions, you also get a benefit from an air toxics perspective," noted Merrylin Zaw-Mon, director of the Air and Radiation Management Administration of the Maryland Department of the Environment, who is active in the OTAG process. Air pollution is thought to be one of the largest contributors of toxic substances to the Chesapeake, according to Bay Program reports.

Still, the primary focus of OTAG is the ozone problem, though Zaw-Mon said members remain interested in additional "incremental benefits" that different control strategies may bring to other pollution problems. "We sort of keep that on our radar screen," she said. Ozone is formed on hot, sunny days when chemicals - primarily NOx and hydrocarbons known as volatile organic compounds - mix in the atmosphere. High levels of ozone can cause health problems for humans, particularly the young, elderly and those with respiratory ailments. Ozone can also damage crops and trees, as well as contribute to pollution problems in the Bay and other coastal waters.

Until a few years ago, scientists and air quality managers generally believed that controlling volatile organic compounds - fumes from sources as varied as gasoline, paint thinners and baking bread - was enough to resolve the ozone problem. But recent research suggests that controlling volatile organic compounds alone won't do the job for many areas.

Controlling NOx is a difficult proposition, though. While VOCs can be controlled locally, NOx travels hundreds of miles, forming large "plumes" downwind of major cities, industries or power plants. Some areas get so much NOx from these plumes, they couldn't achieve the ozone standard if they closed all of their industries.

This makes it impossible for states to write "implementation plans" required under by Clean Air Act. Those plans must describe in detail what actions a state will undertake to attain clean air standards.

The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments recognized this problem and formed the Ozone Transport Commission, which includes all the Northeast states from Virginia to Maine, where some of the nation's worst ozone problems exist. The commission has imposed controls more strict than surrounding states, but has also concluded that the problem is bigger than its 12-state region.

"We've done a lot, and we can still do some more, but without some action outside the region, we're still going to have a problem attaining the standard," said Dave Foerter of the OTC.

Other areas, such as Chicago region, have reached similar conclusions.

Thus, OTAG was born. With a mid-1997 deadline looming for new state implementation plans, many officials realized they could not address the ozone problem without dealing with the NOx issue on a massive, 37-state scale.

OTAG is a maze of committees and workgroups that explore various issues and options. At the heart of the process are a series of computer modeling exercises that examine how different control strategies could help reduce ozone pollution.

Dozens of strategies are being examined, including new pollution control technologies for power plants and industries, a new "national" low emission car, cleaner-burning fuels and other measures.

One likely component of the final OTAG recommendations will be a "cap and trade" program in which emissions would be capped at a level significantly lower than those allowed today, and then emission trading would be allowed between generators. Proponents of this market-based approach, including the EPA, say it could significantly reduce implementation costs of any control strategy.

Those modeling exercises are to be completed by this fall. By early next year, OTAG will outline what actions are needed so all states will be able to comply with the ozone standard.

What happens then is less clear.

OTAG leaders hope all the states will incorporate the recommendations into their state implementation plans

But OTAG has little more than peer pressure to get states - particularly those that have no attainment problems but which contribute to pollution in other states - to go along.

Some states, including Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas, have indicated they want out of OTAG. Others, such as Illinois, have passed legislation limiting their participation. Legislation passed in Illinois, for example, prohibits implementation of OTAG control strategies without public hearings and legislative approval.

Dean van Orten, chief of the stationary source section of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Air Quality, described one recent OTAG meeting where a representative from one of the Dakotas "basically stood up and said they are way up in the middle of nowhere, that they didn't want to be in this program, they don't want to do any controls and please leave us alone, thank you very much, and sat down."

He was followed by a representative from another Plains state that had never had an ozone violation who asked, "Why in the world are we worried about what happens to New York City?" As OTAG begins to zero-in on specific options, van Orten said, "the competing interests are really going to start coming out."

But many interest groups are divided themselves. For instance, eastern utilities have already invested heavily in pollution control equipment. They see OTAG as a way to level the playing field with Midwestern rivals who operate cheaper, but dirtier, power plants.

Yet a group of Midwest utilities, known as the Midwest Ozone Group, along with the National Mining Association, published a report earlier this year claiming that control technologies being pondered by OTAG could cost utilities $18 billion to $27 billion a year to install, and another $4 billion to $5.5 billion annually to operate. It said the added costs to utilities and manufacturers could cost 300,000 to 400,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, several environmental groups have been highly supportive of the OTAG process. "The way I look at it is the legal and regulatory methods weren't achieving the end result," said Sue Gander, of the Center for Clean Air Policy.

But other groups, after watching areas continually fail to attain the ozone standard - which was to be met by 1975 according to the original 1970 Clean Air Act - are not holding their breath to get ozone reductions through OTAG. Several recently filed suit against the EPA for allowing ozone reduction deadlines in the Clean Air Act to pass in the Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia areas.

"We're going to move forward with upholding the law," said Howard Fox, an attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. "Deadlines in the law have passed and people are breathing unhealthy air, so we're going to be proceeding to make sure that the air gets cleaned up."

The public appears equally divided: Though polls show strong support for efforts to protect air quality, efforts to force enhanced auto emission testing and increase car pooling have met strong resistance, forcing state agencies and the EPA to backpedal.

If there is no consensus on implementing OTAG's recommendations, action would rest in the hands of the EPA. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to reject implementation plans that do not attain the clean air standards, or which could contribute to problems downwind.

The agency could reject plans that do not include the OTAG's recommendations or, in a worst-case situation, it could write implementation plans for states.

It is a situation the agency would like to avoid. "The times that we've done federal implementation plans, we've not had great success," Helms said. "The big feds coming and making you do it is not the 'in' thing right now."

The EPA has expressed its intent to pursue such a course if needed, but has expressed concern over how quickly - and how successfully - the issue could be resolved.

For example, it insisted that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission develop plans to control any additional NOx pollution that may result from its ongoing effort to deregulate the utility industry.

The reason, EPA Administrator Carol Browner explained in a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is concern that OTAG and the EPA may "fail to produce the necessary pollution limitations in a timely manner."

But the alternative to OTAG or EPA action could be even worse. Failure to agree on a comprehensive solution could lead to an flurry of states suing each other to force air pollution reductions: Already, some New England states have sued Wisconsin for writing a plan that they claimed failed to adequately control NOx.

"The states have gotten the message that they have to do something," Gander said. "There's still going to be people who say, 'Oh, we're not part of the problem.' But I think the message is getting through that they're going to have to do something."

Be Cool: How to reduce ozone in hot weather

  • Consolidate trips and errands
  • Refuel carefully - don't overfill gas tanks
  • Refuel your vehicle in the evening or after dark
  • Replace your gas cap if it's more than 5 years old
  • Avoid prolonged vehicle idling
  • Drive smoothly - avoid jack-rabbit starts and stops
  • Keep motor vehicles, boats, lawn mowers and other fuel-burning equipment well maintained
  • Walk or bicycle for short trips
  • Operate gas-powered mowers during the evening
  • Car pool or use mass transportation
  • Use latex rather than oil-base paints, and avoid using sprayers
  • Conserve energy by not overcooling your home
  • Avoid using charcoal lighter fluids
  • Operate dishwashers and washing machines with full loads

Elevated ozone levels cause lungs, hospital admissions to swell

  • Ozone can cause tissues in the walls of breathing passages to become inflamed and swollen; and eventually, scarring develops. When this happens, breathing capacity, and the delivery of oxygen to the body, is diminished. Susceptibility to infection is also increased.
  • About 90 million Americans live in areas that violate the national health standard for ozone.
  • The results of a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that exposure to ground-level ozone, or smog, was tied to up to 15,000 hospital admissions and 50,000 respiratory-related emergency room visits in a dozen cities with high ozone levels.
  • Response to ozone varies widely. Some, especially those with allergies or airway sensitivity problems, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, are more likely to have a more marked reaction than others exposed to the same levels of ozone.
  • Children and youths are at a particular risk because they breathe in more air per pound of body weight; spend more time outdoors than adults; and are less likely to be aware of warning symptoms. Roughly 4.8 million U.S. children suffer from asthma.
  • Studies have demonstrated that even healthy non-smokers experience breathing impairment in highly polluted areas.
  • Healthy individuals exposed to ozone while exercising experience reduced lung function, inflammation, and often symptoms of chest pain, congestion and coughing.

- Sources: American Lung Association, Associated Press