EPA outlines steps for implementing ozone standard

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2015

U.S. EPA’s top air official expressed confidence that most areas of the country will be able to meet the new ozone standard and outlined agency plans in a memo to regional offices last week.

Acting EPA air chief Janet McCabe laid out a schedule for meeting the new limit of 70 parts per billion that gives states about five years to submit plans for lowering ozone levels.

She also sought to reassure states and local areas that EPA will be a willing partner in reducing ground-level ozone concentrations.

“I want to emphasize that we will work with our state, local, federal and tribal partners,” McCabe wrote, “to carry out the duties of ozone air quality management in a manner that maximizes common sense, flexibility and cost-effectiveness.”

EPA announced Thursday that it was lowering the national ambient air quality standard from 75 ppb — the level set in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration — to 70 ppb based on a review of public health data (Greenwire, Oct. 1).

In the memo, McCabe said EPA will release a guidance document early next year laying out the process of designating which areas of the country are not meeting the 70 ppb limit and must take actions to reduce their pollution levels.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to finalize a list of areas that are in “nonattainment” with the new standard by Oct. 1, 2017. The agency will likely rely on 2014-2016 data to develop that list, McCabe said.

According to EPA, 213 counties with air quality monitors, excluding California, will measure ozone concentrations higher than 70 ppb based on 2012-2014 data.

EPA will propose a rule to address implementation issues, as well as update existing air quality rules and permitting guidelines to reflect the new standard, McCabe wrote.

“We recognize that the owners and operators of emissions sources need clarity and certainty about regulatory requirements, especially when there are changes in air quality standards that may affect their construction and operations,” she wrote.

States won’t be expected to submit to EPA formal implementation plans laying out how they will achieve the new ozone standard until 2020 or 2021, the memo says.

“The goal,” McCabe said, “is achieving clean air, while recognizing the many other activities underway and the resource constraints that we and our co-regulators face.”

The agency says it expects all but 14 counties will achieve the standard by 2025 thanks to other air quality regulations that are already in place.

Green groups have dismissed the new standard as not providing enough protection against the negative health effects associated with ozone pollution (Greenwire, Oct. 2).

Business and industry have argued that it will impose steep compliance costs.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said EPA had “threaded the needle” with its choice of a 70 ppb standard. NACAA represents state and local air regulators nationwide.

“The agency has appropriately balanced the views of divergent stakeholders with the public’s right to breathe clean air,” Becker said. “By following the expert advice of its independent science advisers, EPA has set the stage for state and local air pollution control agencies to begin implementing this important program.”

Most areas around the country, Becker said, are on a path toward compliance with the 70 ppb limit. Businesses will have nearly a decade to meet any new requirements stemming from the new standard, based on EPA’s schedule, he noted.

In California, EPA said meeting the new ozone standard will prove difficult in some of the state’s most polluted air basins that are surrounded by mountains, including the Los Angeles region. Under the Clean Air Act, however, those areas will have longer to come into attainment with the new limit.

The California Air Resources Board applauded the new limit in a statement last week.

“The new standard will mean a reduction in premature mortality, hospitalizations, emergency room visits for asthma, and lost work and school days,” said board Chairwoman Mary Nichols. “This is especially critical in the South Coast and San Joaquin Valley, where nearly two-thirds of our state’s residents live, including large numbers of people who work outside and who have asthma and other chronic heart and lung diseases.”

The Air Resources Board said its strategy for cleaning up pollution from cars and trucks would help it achieve the 70 ppb standard. It urged EPA to adopt a new national standard for nitrogen oxide from heavy-duty trucks. NOx is a key ingredient of ground-level ozone.

“ARB will develop new heavy-duty diesel engine emissions standards within the next several years,” the regulatory agency said, “while simultaneously petitioning U.S. EPA to establish a corresponding national standard.”

Some states are warning that the new limit will be challenging to achieve due to the transport of ozone across state lines, as well as because of “background ozone” coming to the United States from overseas.

“Implementation of this new, lower standard will be difficult in Arizona,” said Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Division Director Eric Massey in a statement. “Emissions and options to reduce them are few, particularly in rural areas.”

In a document released with the new standard, EPA said it will work “closely” with states to address high ozone concentrations in rural areas and due to background ozone.

The agency said it plans this fall to release proposed revisions to its exceptional events rule — through which states can submit data to EPA to show that an air quality violation is beyond their control — to make it easier to use in the face of a tighter ozone standard.

EPA is also planning to release a guidance for addressing high ozone levels due to wildfires.