January 12, 2010

Ozone and the Citizen

Posted on January 12, 2010 by Alan Gilbert

Accompanied by a considerable public relations effort, the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed new national ambient air quality standards for ozone on January 7, 2010. The agency wants to reduce the primary 8-hour ozone standard from its current value of 0.075 parts per million, promulgated by the last administration in March 2008, to a level in the range from 0.060 to 0.070 parts per million. Using its reconsideration of the 2008 standard as a platform, EPA emphasized that more careful attention should be paid to the recommendations of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. That, it says, is just good science.

The country will face considerable difficulty and expense meeting the proposed primary standard nationwide, especially at its lower range. Based on monitoring data from 2006 to 2008, EPA predicts that a proposed primary standard set at 0.060 parts per million would be violated in all but 24 of the counties monitored counties nationwide for the pollutant.

In the part of the country where I live ― my office is in Colorado ― a new standard is going to be extremely difficult to meet, especially at the lower range of the proposal. In our area of the West, monitoring shows that we are, for the most part, quite close to either side of the current 2008 standard. The populous Northern Front Range region of the state reports ozone values of 0.071 parts per million to 0.086 parts per million. Colorado’s state health department, like many others in the West, is struggling mightily to form compliance strategies that will substantially improve ozone air quality in areas that today do not meet the existing standard.

Ozone pollution generally is formed in the atmosphere near the ground in very complex reactions that exploit energy from sunlight to transform a mix of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and methane. Control of ozone focuses on industrial facilities, the generation of electricity, motor vehicle exhaust gases, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents. These are the major sources of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides generated from human activities.

Ozone is particularly difficult to control because of pollutant transport. Precursor pollutants and ozone often arrive near a monitor in a complicated mix of local emissions and emissions carried by the wind from hundreds of miles away. A knowledgeable local air quality expert, quoted in an editorial printed on January 11, 2010, told The Denver Post that the lower range of EPA’s proposed standard is “close to background” levels for the Front Range of Colorado.

As in any primary national ambient air quality standard proceeding ― where the goal under the Clean Air Act is to protect the public’s health with a margin of safety ― fundamental, difficult and interesting questions must be addressed and answered. Who is EPA trying to protect through its proposed standard? It is focusing upon people with lung disease, especially children with asthma, elderly people, and people who are active outdoors, but it emphasizes protection of children. In her speech when the proposed standard was released, Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of EPA, told her audience of her 13-year old son’s difficulty with asthma on days with high ozone levels. What is EPA protecting these people from? It is protecting against reduced lung function and irritation in their airways, aggravation of asthma and susceptibility to respiratory infection, and aggravation of chronic lung diseases. What does science have to say about the level of air pollution that supplies that protection? Usually even more important, what does the science not have to say ― what are the unknowns and assumptions we must make, given the limits to our knowledge? And ― dare I write it? ― is control possible at the levels suggested by the science available to us? At what cost and with what set of benefits? 

In any event, I was particularly struck by a comment reported in our local newspaper when the standard was announced. My reaction may be an over-reaction, but what I read seemed eerily familiar to me and a bit worrisome. The Denver Post reprinted remarks by the  Director of EPA’s Air Programs in Region 8. She reportedly said that residents can begin to make a difference to lower ozone levels by riding the bus and bicycling more instead of driving, weed-whacking and lawn mowing after sunset, and maybe ditching leaf-blowers and switching to push mowers. EPA Increases Burden on Denver to Reduce Smog,The Denver Post, January 8, 2010, p. B-1.

I was a young engineer working for EPA during its foray into federal indirect source controls in the late 1970’s. The remarks I read in the newspaper brought back memories of those days. I hope the group of people currently in charge at EPA remember, too. 

An indirect source, as defined in Section 110 (a)(5)(C) of the Clean Air Act, is “a facility, building, structure, installation, real property, road, or highway which attracts, or may attract, mobile sources of pollution.” More plainly, in the early 1970s federal indirect source controls were designed to force people not to drive their cars to particular areas, if air quality might be imperiled, by forbidding or regulating the businesses that drew those people. In early 1973, responding to a court order, EPA proposed approaches like limiting the number of parking spots at airports, malls, sports venues and amusement parks, forcing parking garages to be smaller, and limiting or rejecting the development of real estate projects that would draw people in their cars. 38 Fed. Reg. 9599 (April 18, 1973). Later that year, the EPA instructed the states to consider these strategies in preconstruction indirect source review. 38 Fed. Reg. 15834 (June 18, 1973) (promulgation of state implementation plan requirements for “mobile source activity associated with . . . buildings, facilities, and installations.”). 

Even a very young engineer could tell that EPA’s approach was a disaster. Ordinary people (as distinct from the business people operating electric generating stations, paint booths, or oil and gas pipelines) were extremely unhappy when the federal government wanted to make their ordinary activities ― driving their cars to a shopping center or to watch a sporting event ― difficult or forbidden. And, of course, the states resented federal intrusion into traditional areas of state and local land use controls. It is also quite easy today to imagine how unhappy the powerful real estate developers were, too.

The reaction was predictable (at least in hindsight) and rapid. Congress forbade EPA from pursuing indirect source regulation in the interest of meeting air quality standards. In a 1974 supplemental appropriations act, Pub. L. No. 93-245, 87 Stat. 1071 (1974), Congress denied EPA budget funds and administrative authority “to administer any program to tax, limit, or otherwise regulate parking facilities.”  Permanent changes to the Clean Air Act came with the 1977 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, when restrictive language was added that is still codified in Section 110(a)(5) of the Clean Air Act. You can read more in a federal Court of Appeals opinion about the controversy and its aftermath, Manchester Environmental Coalition v. EPA, 612 F.2d 56 (2nd Cir. 1979) (successful challenge to EPA’s approval of Connecticut’s revocation of its implementation plan’s indirect source review program). You can get the flavor of this controversy by reading the discussion in the House Report that accompanied H.R. 6161, the House bill underlying the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977. H.R. Rep. No. 294, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., 220-221 (May 12, 1977).

Today some states and political subdivisions choose to use indirect controls on air pollution in their programs. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in California and the State of Wisconsin have programs that are easily found on the Internet, for example.

But EPA is still forbidden to impose indirect source controls upon the states. And the remarks of the regional air quality official about the ozone proposal strike me as suggesting federal regulation that will be perceived in a quite similar and unhappy way by ordinary citizens. Is EPA going to force people to use push lawnmowers? To throw away their leaf blowers and weed whackers? 

Will we follow this path again? I hope not. Controlling the precursors to the formation of ground level ozone at the levels now proposed by EPA is going to be terribly difficult and expensive, at best. But those controls must first have the support of citizens and their elected representatives if they are to have any chance to succeed. Whatever ambient air quality levels are eventually chosen by EPA in the ozone rulemaking, the control strategies eventually imposed by our federal government should not make people so angry that they forget why they are being protected.

Tags: Air


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