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The Environmental Protection Agency is laying the political groundwork for an upcoming rule to toughen smog standards over the opposition of several industry groups and many Republicans.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, in a letter to a Senate Democrat Wednesday, defended the agency’s decision to toughen 2008 standards issued under the Bush administration.

Noting the Bush-era ozone standards — which drew a court challenge — were weaker than the agency’s official science advisory body recommended, Jackson writes that they posed “major challenges” for the government and defends her decision to rewrite them.

“I decided that reconsideration was the appropriate path based on concerns that the 2008 standards were not legally defensible given the scientific evidence in the record for the rulemaking, the requirements of the Clean Air Act and the recommendation of the [Clean Air Act Scientific Advisory Committee],” Jackson wrote to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who heads a panel of the Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees air-quality policy.

Jackson’s letter makes the case for tougher standards, noting that ozone pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of emergency-room visits annually for asthma and other bronchial conditions, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced crop production, lost school days and other problems.

Groups including the American Petroleum Institute, many Republicans and some conservative Democrats have called on EPA to back off, noting that the agency is only required to review its ozone standards every five years and should wait until that process plays out.

Frank O’Donnell, head of the group Clean Air Watch, said Jackson’s letter is aimed at knocking down attacks on EPA’s plan.

“This is intended to help Carper clarify the record and say it is a bogus argument to say the standard was already dealt with a couple years ago, because it was basically botched, and this current EPA is trying to straighten out that mess,” he said.

Jackson proposed rules that toughened the Bush-era standards in early 2010, but EPA has delayed the final rules, prompting fears among supporters of the new rules that EPA was backing off under pressure.

But the agency is currently planning to complete the ozone rules this summer. EPA sent the rule to the White House several days ago for review.

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