The five-parish area around Baton Rouge looks to be headed back out of compliance with federal ozone standards with an announcement Wednesday of new federal air quality regulations to tighten pollution emissions. For the first time, they also could be joined by the greater New Orleans area if the proposed rule is made final next year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its new proposal Wednesday morning. During a press conference, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said this new proposal is based on the review of thousands of scientific articles.
“This is what the science tells about healthy air,” McCarthy said about the proposed lower standards. “Stronger standards better protect children and families from ozone pollution.”
When the Baton Rouge region was previously out of compliance with ozone standards, emissions inspections were imposed on vehicles, a restriction that continues even as air quality improved. The ozone problem in the area also led to higher requirements for new industrial development in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville and Livingston parishes.
Any new restrictions on consumers are unclear and would be dependent on how badly a particular area is out of compliance.
The proposed regulations drew criticism from Governor Bobby Jindal and various industry groups.
“President Obama’s new environmental regulations are reckless and based on a radical leftist ideology that will kill American jobs and increase energy prices,” Jindal said in a statement. He predicted the new rules would lead to higher energy prices.
The Obama administration’s proposal would lower the current 75 parts-per-billion limit of measured ozone pollution to between 65 and 70.
The five-parish Baton Rouge area struggled for years to meet the current federal ozone standard, finally succeeding in obtaining the 75 parts per billion measure by the end of 2013, putting the entire state of Louisiana in compliance.
However, as of June air monitoring results, at the proposed 70 parts-per-billion level both the Baton Rouge area and New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner area would end up failing to meet the pollution requirements.
If the EPA opted for a more stringent standard, many more areas of the state could end up struggling with air pollution regulations. At 65 parts per billion, the Houma-Thibodaux region, Lake Charles, Lafayette and Shreveport-Bossier City would join the two regions in trying to meet the lower standard.
A 90-day comment period on the EPA’s proposal will begin once the proposal is published in the federal registry. The EPA also will accept comments of possibly lowering the standard to 60 parts per billion, which was advocated by environmental groups.
“The conversation isn’t over. This is an opportunity to look at the science together,” McCarthy sad.
Ozone pollution isn’t something that is released into the air. Instead, it forms when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides released from industry, car exhaust and other sources mix in the air during hot and sunny days. The chemical reaction forms ozone and if there isn’t enough wind to dissipate the pollution, ozone can accumulate and cause breathing problems — like asthma — or other health problems.
Harold P. Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, called tightening ozone standards an important move. But, as with several environmental groups that reacted to the announcement Wednesday, Wimmer urged the Obama administration to go further and adopt the 60 parts-per-billion level.
“Thousands of peer-reviewed medical studies show that breathing ozone pollution is dangerous to human health and the EPA review shows harm is occurring at levels far below what is currently considered ‘safe’” Wimmer said in a statement. “This means too many Americans have been informed that the air in their community is safe to breathe based on the outdated standard.”
While environmental and health groups want to see the ozone pollution standard tighten, many industrial trade groups, business organizations and elected officials have opposed the lowering of the ozone standard.
Opponents say by lowering the standard during a time of economic recovery, new rules of this type will cost jobs and economic development while bringing minimal returns.
American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard issued a statement Wednesday calling the proposal possibly “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.”
“Air quality has improved dramatically over the past decades and will continue to improve as EPA and states implement existing standards, which are the most stringent ever,” said Gerard, whose group lobbies for the oil and natural gas industry. “Careful review of the science shows that the current standards already protect public health.”
The EPA disagrees and estimates that the health benefits from lowering the standard, such as reducing asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths, will far outweigh any costs.
At 70 parts per billion, the agency estimates there could be a health benefits of anywhere from $6.4 billion to $13 billion a year in 2025 while the annual cost is estimated to be $3.9 billion.
At the 65 parts-per-billion level, 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 the EPA.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.