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Advocate file photo of ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Chemical Plant on Scenic Highway. 

Advocate file photo

The Environmental Protection Agency has informed state officials that it intends to label the Baton Rouge area as out of compliance with national air quality standards, a move that affects permitting standards for new or expanded industrial facilities. 

The notice comes in light of new regulations promulgated in 2015 that reduce the allowable amount of ozone and just nine months after the Baton Rouge area came into compliance with earlier EPA standards.

In a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality dated Dec. 20, EPA officials said East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston and Iberville have too much ozone and other pollutants in their air.

Ground-level ozone is known to exacerbate asthma and trigger coughing, chest pain and throat irritation, according to the EPA. It also can be harmful to plants and sensitive ecosystems.

It's produced by emissions from power and chemical plants, cars, and refineries, the EPA says.  

The Baton Rouge area achieved compliance, known as "attainment" in EPA lingo, with the EPA's 2008 standard in March. That regulation allowed parishes to have a maximum of 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air. The new standard promulgated in 2015 lowered that level to 70. Monitors in East Baton Rouge indicate ozone levels of 72, according to EPA documents.

"We're very close to the bubble," said Donald Trahan, administrator of the air planning and assessment division at DEQ.

Scores for the other parishes were 71 in Ascension, 70 in Livingston and 66 in West Baton Rouge. Monitors in Iberville did not collect data that met the criteria for inclusion.

The EPA's decision to count Livingston, West Baton Rouge and Iberville as noncompliant was due in part to how those parishes contribute to high ozone levels in the region, according to a technical support document. Those parishes were also knocked for having a high numbers of motor vehicle miles traveled and for the emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are also pollutants.

The letter comes nearly three months late, as  the EPA was supposed to alert states to noncompliant areas by Oct. 1. Last month, the agency released a list of areas that were in compliance with the new rules but said nothing about 11 parishes, including the Baton Rouge metropolitan area. 

The situation led to confusion among state regulators, environmentalists and business leaders. Environmentalists and health advocates sued the agency for acting late and thereby failing to protect citizens against the harmful effects of ozone. 

The letter starts a 120 day period in which the state can respond to the EPA and potentially contest the designation, according to DEQ's Trahan.

The designation given by the EPA is in line with what Louisiana had already acknowledged to be the case in communications with the federal agency in September 2016. Trahan said the DEQ has not yet decided whether it will submit any new information or contest the designations.

The letter says a 30-day public comment period will be opened. 

When a parish is considered not in attainment with air pollution standards, it means more stringent permits for new industrial facilities that are built or for expansions of existing facilities. 

"It's a little bit more difficult to build new plants or expand an existing plant," Trahan said. 

In addition, it means that gasoline sold in the summers must have lower vapor pressure, which reduces the emissions that contribute to ozone and smog. That gasoline can be more costly.

Industry leaders told the Advocate during the confusion earlier this month they hoped the EPA would not declare the Baton Rouge area to be out of compliance.

Baton Rouge Area Chamber Executive Vice President Michael DiResto said doing so would stifle economic growth in the area. Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John said it could mean increased gasoline costs for consumers, among other problems.

“The designation of non-attainment for the capitol region is problematic for a number of reasons. For the everyday consumer, it could mean an increased cost of gasoline during the summer of 2018. However, we have been working at LMOGA with our members, along with regulators at the local, state, and federal level, to develop a body of work that shows the rationale for non-attainment is either isolated or the result of influences outside of the Baton Rouge metro area. Hopefully, this isn’t the final decision going into 2018 summer.”

Environmentalists and the EPA say reducing ozone levels is important, however. 

In a declaration filed with the environmentalists' lawsuit, Elena Craft, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that ground-level ozone leads to respiratory effects, from decreased lung function to respiratory-related hospital emissions to premature death. 

"Both the delay in implementing pollution control measures and in ultimately attaining the standards expand the risk of near-term harm to all populations, and especially harm to children, older adults, those suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma, low-income populations, outdoor workers and other recreating outdoors," she wrote.

Trahan said that if the Baton Rouge area is officially determined as out of compliance, DEQ will have 18 months to develop a plan for how to get in line. 

He said that in the 1970s through 1990s, DEQ mostly targeted the major industrial sites with regulations requiring them to reduce emissions. Now, most larger sites have emissions controls in place, and the reductions will have to come as much from smaller sources, including cars and dry cleaners, as well as  from increased efficiency and anti-pollution devices in factories. 

"We anticipate that we will continue reducing emissions in the five-parish area, and that is what will get us into attainment," Trahan said.

Six other parishes — Assumption, East Feliciana, Pointe Coupee, St. James, St. Helena and West Feliciana were also left off the November list of parishes that have hit their goals. 

The letter says those parishes will be listed as attainment/unclassifiable. The technical document says Pointe Coupee's high nitrogen oxide emissions largely result from the Big Cajun II power plant, which is under a consent decree to reduce pollution. St. Helena and the Felicianas are low-population and have lower ozone numbers. 

The EPA documents do not explain the decisions regarding Assumption and St. James parishes.

All other parishes in the state are in compliance, according to the EPA.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.