Tougher ozone pollution standard could have big effects in N.O. area _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The flag flies near a Chalmette Refinery Friday, December 5, 2014.

More complex and costly permitting for federal road projects, more analysis of traffic patterns and requirements that industry find ways to reduce releases of ozone-causing pollution probably are on the way for the New Orleans area.

However, local and state officials have been working to pinpoint just where and how to try to head off the consequences of not meeting a tougher federal ozone standard.

In late November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule that would lower the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to somewhere between 65 and 70 ppb. The agency is also taking comments on the possibility of lowering it to 60 ppb.

As of June, air monitoring results show that if the standard is set at 70 ppb, New Orleans would be out of compliance because air monitors at the end of 2013 showed values of 72 ppb. That means state and local officials will need to come up with plans to reduce the release of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides which combine to form ozone.

Unlike in Baton Rouge, which has largely depended on industrial facilities to take steps to come into compliance with ozone standards, or Lafayette, which will likely depend on reducing vehicle emissions, New Orleans’ ozone problem is a result of pollution from both sources.

The New Orleans area, for the purpose of ozone regulation, includes eight parishes: Jefferson, Orleans, St. Tammany, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

The area has formed a New Orleans Clean Air Coalition, loosely based on one in Baton Rouge, to start talking about how and where emission reductions need to be made to get ahead of the new standard that may be put in place.

New Orleans also has been participating in an EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality program called “Ozone Advance,” which is meant to get areas to start working on reducing ozone-causing pollution to avoid being considered out of compliance.

“We’re working with them to decide what the biggest bang for the buck would be,” said Meredith Soniat, a sustainability planner with the Regional Planning Commission in New Orleans. Although the group has met only twice to talk about the basic issues the area is facing, the meetings likely will get more frequent once a computer air model is completed through DEQ.

“We’re doing our best to get to 70 ppb or lower if possible,” Soniat said.

At present, areas need to meet an ozone pollution standard calculated at 75 ppb or lower. This figure comes from taking the fourth-highest daily maximum eight-hour average ozone concentration for three years and then averaging those numbers. If just one monitor in the region fails to meet the standard, the entire area is considered out of compliance.

But there’s still time to make improvements.

The determination on whether an area meets the standard that the 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 to see improvements in their ozone average and possibly avoid being found out of compliance.

“It has been respected as a big deal,” Soniat said. “We all realize it’s going to have an impact on us as an agency and as a region. We’re trying to be proactive.”

Ozone is not a pollution that is released; it is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from industry, vehicle traffic and other sources combine in the air on hot, sunny days. When there is little wind, this formed ozone can accumulate and lead to breathing or other health problems, especially for vulnerable people like children and the elderly.

The EPA estimates that health benefits to the public from lowering the standard, such as reducing asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths, will far outweigh any costs associated with meeting the new rule. With a 70 ppb standard, there could be health benefits of anywhere from $6.4 billion to $13 billion a year by 2025, which is the expected deadline to meet the new standard for most of the country. The annual cost of reducing the pollution is estimated to be $3.9 billion.

At 65 ppb, the annual health benefits by 2025 are estimated to be between $19 billion and $38 billion, while the cost is estimated to be $15 billion, according to the EPA.

Opponents of the tougher standards, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal 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 benefiting 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 pushing for more action on meeting the federal ozone level in the five-parish area around Baton Rouge. Although industry has gotten progressively better with its ozone response, it’s frustrating to see elected officials ignoring the importance of ozone standards to the detriment of the health of state residents, Orr said.

“They never seem to talk about what the real cost is,” such as emergency room visits or missed school days because of asthma or other health problems, she said.

On the industrial side, Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with the 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 continue with its work.

He said his association and the Louisiana Chemical Association also have been working with industrial facilities in other areas of the state — where ozone will be a new concern — to try to educate people there on what’s coming.

“We’ve been trying to do a lot of education of New Orleans area people because they haven’t really dealt with this,” Metcalf said.

The potential changes in the standards have people’s attention, he said, but it really shouldn’t result in a slowdown in economic growth in the Baton Rouge to New Orleans corridor.

Rules that have been in place in the Baton Rouge area could help other areas of the state, Metcalf said. These are rules that other areas of the state can live with, “because we’ve lived with them for 20 years,” he said.

In order to help areas of the state facing ozone issues for the first time, Metcalf said, the two industry associations have put together money to use computer modeling being developed by DEQ to pinpoint just what pollution needs to be reduced to meet the ozone standard in each area.

One size won’t necessarily fit all areas because each area has a different makeup of pollution sources that contribute to the problem.

The computer modeling being developed by DEQ will allow the testing of different levels of reduction of different pollutants to see what will work and how reductions could help regionally.

The focus, Metcalf said, “is how to make it happen.”

It will also matter just how low the EPA decides to set the new standard: between 65 and 70 ppb, or as low as 60 ppb.

“Each area is going to have to be examined depending on how the benchmark is set,” said Henry Graham, vice president of environmental affairs and general counsel with the Louisiana Chemical Association.

The EPA, DEQ and area leaders are trying to get the word out to other parts of the state to reduce emissions now.

“The Baton Rouge group is trying to help the others because we’ve learned a lot,” Graham said. “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.”