The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency takes the notion of being your neighbor’s keeper to an illogical extreme.

Last week it found Davidson and Guilford counties in violation of particulate air pollution standards. EPA monitors showed Davidson barely out of compliance. Guilford came in under the allowable limit.

But because soot travels long distances, the EPA contends Guilford’s highway traffic unduly contributes to unacceptable Davidson air quality. Unclear, however, is why only Guilford is being singled out as the culprit.

The EPA consistently has maintained air pollution is regional and has favored wide-ranging sanctions. Back in June it lumped Stokes, Randolph and Forsyth counties in with Guilford and Davidson on the offenders’ list. Apparently it had a change of heart after North Carolina tightened restrictions on coal-fired power plants and expanded car and truck inspections.

If the problem is regionwide, as the EPA says, it’s a stretch to blame one neighbor as an air polluter and let the others off the hook. Except for Davidson, all meet EPA standards.

Both Guilford and Forsyth have interstates and major highways, yet the EPA takes notice only of Guilford’s traffic volume. Duke Power’s coal-fired Belews Creek power plant in Stokes County has undergone major renovations but still emits particulate matter. Charlotte, barely avoiding EPA penalties itself and not that far away, may contribute to Davidson’s troubles.

The answer, however, isn’t in saddling others with stringent EPA sanctions that could impede economic growth and slow road construction just as the state lures new industry. Rather, state officials should thoroughly review the latest EPA decision with an eye toward asking for Guilford’s removal from the violator’s list. It doesn’t belong there.

In September, William G. Ross, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, wrote a letter to the EPA urging that counties adjoining Davidson not be penalized. Guilford was included.

Questions also linger about the accuracy of EPA air-monitoring devices in Davidson County. Inaccurate readings may have resulted. For that reason, officials there have taken the matter to court.

The stakes are high. Counties on the EPA’s list come under tough federal scrutiny. They must show that new or expanding industries won’t further dirty the air. Next year, they must prove new road projects won’t increase pollution. Federal funding could be jeopardized.

Inhaling tiny airborne particulates is injurious to health, particularly for the elderly. It can worsen asthma and bronchitis and even lead to heart attacks. The EPA is correct in cracking down. But it’s way off base calling for penalties against Guilford County, which meets federal and state standards.

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