The long-awaited tougher ozone pollution standard announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ended up more lenient than many expected, although the Baton Rouge area again faces falling out of compliance with federal air quality regulations.
However, Baton Rouge still has a chance to meet the new standards if next year’s air monitoring information shows lower levels of ozone pollution, commonly known as smog.
EPA announced that the standard will be lowered only to 70 parts per billion of ozone in the air, a level that every monitor in the state, except one, currently meets. The only monitor above that level as of Aug. 31 is at LSU at 71 ppb.
The five-parish Baton Rouge region struggled for years to meet federal ozone requirements, forcing emissions inspections to be imposed on vehicles, along with more stringent rules for industrial development in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville and Livingston parishes.
But in 2013, the Baton Rouge region succeeded in meeting the previous standard of 75 parts per billion of ozone pollution.
Metropolitan areas are graded on whether they meet the ozone standard through an average of three years’ worth of air monitoring information. EPA will be considering information from 2014, 2015 and 2016 in order to determine if a place meets the new standard.
If Baton Rouge air monitoring information looks good next year, there may be no problem. On the flip side, with New Orleans at 70 ppb this year, if that region gets worse, it could be facing noncompliance, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Ozone isn’t released directly into the air, but instead is formed through a chemical reaction when volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen oxides mix during sunny days. The releases come from many sources, from industry plants to vehicles on the roads. When there is little wind to dissipate the ozone, it can accumulate in an area and cause health concerns for vulnerable populations like children, the elderly or people with lung ailments.
The Obama administration had mulled lowering the ozone standard for years. Last fall, the EPA put out guidelines indicating it might consider lowering it even further than the decision on Thursday — contemplating limits of 65 or 60 ppb — winning praise from environmental and medical advocates.
But when the final ruling was announced, those environmental organizations expressed disappointment, saying the new standard didn’t go far enough to protect human health. National business groups also were critical, arguing that the new standard would be too expensive.
However, Louisiana industry and environmental organizations were more tempered in their reactions.
Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the new standard doesn’t really change much for Louisiana oil and gas companies. Facilities within the Baton Rouge area will still face restrictions they’ve been dealing with since the 1990s.
“Essentially we’re dealing with what we’ve dealt with in the last several years and we can work through it,” he said.
The bad news for Baton Rouge, he said, is that the possible nonattainment status will mean that businesses will continue to locate to areas like Lake Charles and St. James Parish where ozone doesn’t have to be a consideration.
“It’s bad for Baton Rouge, but good for the rest of the state,” he said. “In the big picture, it’s good for industry because it’s change, but it’s a minor change.”
Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and a long-time activist on the ozone issue in Baton Rouge, said it’s a little frustrating and disappointing that EPA didn’t lower the standard further. She said there is ample science to show that 70 ppb is not protective enough of human health.
However, Orr also said it is good news that the standard is continuing to creep lower.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that after reviewing thousands of studies, including more than 1,000 done since 2008, 70 ppb meets the criteria set out by the Clean Air Act for the standard to be set at a level that protects human health. There’s more scientific work to be done to show that setting the limit lower would offer additional protection, she said.
If the standard had been lowered to 65 or 60 ppb, it was possible that large parts of the state would have been out of compliance.
Not meeting the standard brings with it possible additional requirements on industry, road construction and even additional car emission inspections, as Baton Rouge-area residents continue to deal with annually.
Now that the new standard has been set, the state will need to recommend what areas didn’t meet the standard by October 2016, and EPA would finalize those recommendations a year later.
It’s possible, according to DEQ, that the department may ask for an extra year for that determination to be made since the Baton Rouge area has been involved in an EPA program called Ozone Advance to address concerns before the new standard was announced.
EPA estimates the new standard will result in public health benefits of $2.9 billion to $5.9 billion a year in 2025, while the cost to implement would be $1.4 billion a year.
Environmental organizations criticized the EPA decision for not going far enough, with the group Earthjustice saying it won’t sufficiently help children who have asthma. “The science shows that ozone is dangerous to these kids at the levels allowed by this new standard,” Lisa Garcia, the group’s vice president of healthy communities, said in a news release.
Several in Louisiana’s congressional delegation came out against the new regulations, with their criticisms echoing the concerns raised by groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which declared the rule “overly burdensome, costly and misguided,”
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said lowering the standard actually makes public health worse since it will threaten jobs and “having a stable job with good benefits is strongly associated with better health. America can be pro-environment and pro-business — we don’t have to hurt our workers to achieve this.”
U.S. Rep Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, agreed that “EPA’s final radical ozone regulation could cost Louisiana billions of dollars in growth and lost tax receipts as well as thousands of good-paying jobs. Make no mistake: This will be the costliest regulation ever.”
EPA disagrees that this will lead to economic hardship and in a news release wrote, “Nationally, from 1980 to 2014, average ozone levels have fallen 33 percent, while the economy has continued to grow.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.