Parishes surrounding Baton Rouge struggled to meet EPA’s proposed, tough ozone levels

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- This photo from 2014 shows Baton Rouge industry as seen from the Louisiana State Capitol building.

Baton Rouge can breathe easier now that the region is officially compliant with federal clean air standards.

The celebration may not last long, since pollution standards are scheduled to tighten again in the near future, though regulators are waiting to see how President Donald Trump's administration decides to move forward.

For years, East Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes have flip-flopped in and out of attainment for levels of ozone — or smog. The air quality has gradually improved, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency has required lower and lower pollution levels, said Donald Trahan, administrator of the state Department of Environmental Quality's air planning and assessment division.

The EPA finally indicated the local air was compliant last year, Trahan said, though official acknowledgement of the findings was delayed until last week because of the change in presidential leadership.

"We've known what the grades are. ... It's sort of like finally getting the report card," he said.

In a statement, DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown pointed out that now that Baton Rouge has reached attainment, the entire state is finally compliant with federal air quality standards.

"Louisiana's air is the cleanest it has been since the promulgation of the Clean Air Act," he wrote. "This accomplishment has been a cooperative effort between LDEQ, industry and individuals for many years and has greatly improved the air quality and the quality of life in Louisiana."

Ozone forms when certain organic compounds and nitrogen oxides are released into the air and come into contact with sunlight. When car engines or industrial facilities burn fossil fuels, their emissions contribute to smog formation. State regulators have tried to control emissions by making plants more efficient or by chemically treating their by-products into less volatile compounds.

When a region comes into compliance, it is a bit easier to apply for industrial permits, Trahan said. However, around Baton Rouge, officials are preparing for stricter federal regulations.

Decades ago, the ozone standard was 120 parts per billion. By the 1990s, it lowered to 80 ppb, and it's currently at 75 ppb. However, in 2015, the EPA decided to lower the amount to 70 ppb, though the new standard hasn't taken effect yet.

State and federal officials have three years to agree on a way to measure smog whenever the goal posts move, Trahan said. That would give the 70 ppb standard a 2018 deadline, and regulators are watching the Trump administration to see how it will proceed, he said. If the standard is adopted, Baton Rouge would again fall out of compliance, since measurements in the area generally fall in the 72 to 74 ppb range.

Proponents of lower ozone levels — some of whom advocated for dropping the level to 60 or 65 ppb — point to savings on health care, since smog has been associated with maladies from asthma to heart attacks. Opponents say the cost to businesses and potential loss of jobs is not worth the increasingly smaller returns in public health.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.