A local environmental attorney is challenging the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet over statements officials made earlier this week at a conference.

The contentious point revolves around a comment Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters made during a session at the cabinet’s annual conference earlier this week. Here’s how his comments were summarized in a story by Jim Bruggers of the Courier-Journal.

In a discussion about smog, Peters said the current ozone standards are about as stringent as they should be.

He questioned the wisdom behind a Clean Air Act requirement that the standards be examined every five years to make sure they protect public health. That process, based on an EPA review of medical science, typically results in more stringent standards.

Peters predicted it would be “tremendously costly” to further reduce ozone levels, and said the health benefits would be “questionable.”

Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald responded with an opinion piece in the newspaper. In it, he cites facts and studies about air quality and concludes:

The statement that further tightening of the ozone standard would be of questionable benefit is quite simply wrong. Peer-reviewed research published in the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that the potential human health benefits of tightening the standard to the range recommended by the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (between 70 and 60 parts per billion) would “result in dramatic public health benefits,” and that the annual number of avoided deaths during the years 2005-07 at 70 ppb would have been between 1,040 and 1,650; and between 3,800 and 5,510 at the 60 ppb range.

The suggestion by Secretary Peters that the process of periodic review of these public health air quality standards, which has since 1970 resulted in significant improvement in air quality, is somehow flawed or unwise, raises a legitimate question as to whether new leadership more committed to the goals and principles of the Clean Air Act and other environmental regulatory programs may be needed.

FitzGerald has freely criticized the Beshear administration before on environmental issues—like when he resigned from two state boards last December—and he says the administration has thus far been “very disappointing” on the environment.

But Energy and Environment Cabinet officials say Peters’ remarks were taken out of context. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott didn’t dispute the Courier-Journal’s account of the conference, but said it didn’t include all the necessary context.  In a phone conversation, he said Peters’ remarks were in response to a hypothetical question, and the secretary values the Clean Air Act.

“If they want to try to spin it now, they can spin it all they want to,” says FitzGerald, who wasn’t at the conference session, but double-checked to make sure the reporting in the Courier-Journal was accurate.

“That’s my understanding of what was said and it’s my understanding that it was not hypothetical in any fashion,” he added.

Scott says the Clean Air Act creates a logistical problem for regulators because it’s reevaluated every five years. Standards are always delayed for various reasons (like litigation or paperwork), and the tight timeline makes it difficult for the cabinet to implement one standard before another one comes along.

For the record, the federal government is responsible for setting the air quality standards. In Kentucky, the Energy and Environment Cabinet (or, in Louisville, the Air Pollution Control District) is required to participate and meet the standards, or can step aside and let the federal government implement the plan for them.