If a proposed ozone pollution standard is set low enough, the Lafayette area could face some of the same headaches in permitting for roads and other construction projects that the Baton Rouge area has faced for decades.
However, local and state officials have been working to pinpoint just where and how pollution reductions will need to be made to try to head off those consequences.
In late November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule that would lower the ozone standard from the current 75 parts per billion to somewhere between 65 ppb and 70 ppb. The agency also is taking comments on the possibility of lowering the standard to 60 ppb.
As of June, air monitoring results show that if the standard is set at 65 ppb, Lafayette would be out of compliance. What that means is state and local officials will need to come up with plans on how to reduce the release of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which combine to form ozone.
Unlike Baton Rouge, there are few if any “smokestack” industries in the greater Lafayette area. The main focus likely will need to be on vehicle traffic.
Although the Lafayette region for ozone purposes includes Acadia, Lafayette, St. Martin, Iberia and Vermilion parishes, there is only one ozone monitor in the region, which is located near the Cajundome. This means that unlike other areas of the state, the readings from this one monitor will determine the ozone fate of the five-parish area.
It’s something that’s been on the mind of Lafayette officials at least since 2008, when the last new ozone standard was put in place, said Beth Foret, regulator compliance supervisor in the environmental division of Lafayette Consolidated Government Department of Public Works.
As a result, the area has been taking action by not having government vehicles idling for long periods of time and transitioning its buses and government vehicles to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas.
Of the 28 buses in the Lafayette Transit System fleet, 22 are fueled by compressed natural gas, said Kevin Blanchard, chief development officer with Lafayette Consolidated Government.
“That’s been the discussion in the Mayor’s Office. Making sure we take all the steps we can,” Blanchard said. “But at the same time, our hands are a little tied because we don’t have a single (industrial) source. We’re stuck with a lot of small options.”
Idling restrictions placed on government vehicles that helps keep unnecessary exhaust from being released and more long-term planning such as pushing for more bike lanes in Lafayette are two options Lafayette already is pursuing.
“We’ve put a renewed effort in alternative transit,” Blanchard said. “Those won’t make big differences overnight, but we’re looking at how we’re developing our infrastructure.”
The area also has been working with an EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality program called “Ozone Advance” designed to help areas make pollution reduction choices before a new, tougher standard is put in place.
Ozone is not a pollution that is released but is instead formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from industry, vehicle traffic and other sources combine in the air during hot, sunny days. When there is little wind, this formed ozone can accumulate and lead to breathing or other health problems, especially for vulnerable populations like children or the elderly.
EPA estimates that the health benefits to the public by lowering the standard, like reducing asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths, will far outweigh any costs associated with meeting the new rule.
At 70 ppb, there could be health benefits of anywhere from $6.4 billion to $13 billion a year by 2025. The annual cost is estimated to be $3.9 billion.
At 65 ppb, the annual health benefits by 2025 are estimated to be between $19 billion to $38 billion, while the cost is estimated to be $15 billion, according to EPA.
Opponents, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Rep. and newly elected U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., say lowering the standard during a time of economic recovery will cost jobs and economic development while bringing minimal returns.
Supporters, such as the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, applaud the proposed lower standard as being a benefit to the health of the public.
“It’s critically important to people’s health and economic development in the state,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Over the years, LEAN has been one of the main groups that has pushed for more action on meeting the federal ozone level in the five-parish area around Baton Rouge. Although industry has progressively improved its ozone response, it’s frustrating to see elected officials ignore the importance of ozone standards to the detriment of the health of state residents, she said.
“They never seem to talk about what the real cost is,” she said, which includes emergency room visits or missed school days because of asthma or other health problems.
Currently, areas need to meet an ozone pollution standard of 75 parts per billion. This amount is calculated by taking the fourth-highest daily maximum eight-hour average ozone concentration for three years and then averaging those numbers.
The determination on whether an area meets the standard that EPA ultimately adopts next year will depend on air monitoring information gathered in 2014, 2015 and 2016. That means there is still time for areas in the state to see improvements in their ozone average to possibly avoid being out of compliance.
If the area fails to meet the new standard, once it’s set, that brings with it a more complex and expensive permitting process for industry and a more complicated process to qualify for federal transportation funding.
In addition, construction projects like a new community center built with federal funds would require an analysis of pollution caused by the construction and the added traffic the center would create to make sure they don’t add to the ozone problem.
Although it involves more work, Vivian Aucoin, environmental scientist manager with DEQ’s air permits division, said she’s not aware of anyone being denied a project because of the requirement.
Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said that after dealing with the ozone issue for more than 20 years, industry in the Baton Rouge area will keep on with the work.
However, the association and the Louisiana Chemical Association have been working with industrial facilities in other areas of the state like New Orleans, where ozone will be a new concern to try to educate people on what’s coming down the line.
“They really haven’t dealt with this,” Metcalf said.
In order to better help other areas of the state facing ozone issues for the first time, Metcalf said the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association will be using computer modeling being developed by DEQ to pinpoint just where and what pollution needs to be reduced to meet the ozone standard in each area.
One size won’t necessarily fit all areas of the state because each area has a different makeup of pollution sources that contribute to the problem.
“The Baton Rouge group is trying to help the others because we’ve learned a lot,” said Henry Graham, vice president of environmental affairs and general counsel with Louisiana Chemical Association. “Our main thing is if you can stay in attainment, do everything you can to do that. Don’t sit back and wait to see what standard comes out and then decide what to do.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.