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Frontline: Implementing the New Ozone Standard - First Steps

Q1 2016
Industrial facility managers should be on the lookout in 2016 for how cities and metropolitan regions are initially judged under the U.S. EPA’s new air quality standard for ozone (O3). EPA lowered the standard last October, from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a more stringent level of 70 ppb. Ozone (O3) is largely a summertime pollutant, commonly associated with “smog.” It is formed from precursor pollutants — volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) — and controlling ozone depends on controlling VOCs and NOx, common pollutants emitted from hundreds of sources. At certain levels, ozone can cause lung and respiratory problems.

EPA’s October decision started a one-year regulatory clock. By October 1, 2016, state governors have to present to EPA which counties in their states will likely comply with the new standard (counties said to be “in attainment”) and which counties will NOT comply and are declared “nonattainment,” an unwelcome turn for a city or metropolitan region. An ozone nonattainment area requires new or different controls on air pollution sources, from cars and trucks to manufacturing and industrial facilities, even including consumer products such as aerosols, fuels, solvents, and paints.
Regions with more severe ozone problems face controls tougher than lower-ranked regions. Business leaders, therefore, may be familiar with existing nonattainment demands but a new, higher ranking requires a close look at expanded controls.
Not a New Concept
Attainment and nonattainment are not new regulatory concepts. Many urban industrial facility managers are familiar with working in nonattainment areas. But a new lower standard will sweep in new territory. Executives with facilities in these different locations will need to acquaint themselves with this difficult set of regulations.

Additionally, and importantly, a lower standard could mean that a current nonattainment area is ranked higher on the scale EPA uses to judge relative nonattainment. (Ozone levels in Columbus, Ohio, for example, are lower than in Los Angeles.) In the Clean Air Act, mandatory controls are linked to the severity of the problem. Regions with more severe ozone problems face controls tougher than lower-ranked regions. Business leaders, therefore, may be familiar with existing nonattainment demands but a new, higher ranking requires a close look at expanded controls.

A state’s initial evaluation is the first step in the attainment/nonattainment designation. The EPA has one year after that in which to review the states’ analyses, and agree or disagree with the conclusions. Business managers should watch for this 2016 analysis. If a state’s report includes questionable data and assumptions, that work should be challenged. Be assured: environmental and public health groups will be monitoring this closely and will be prepared to push back at regulators.

EPA expects that 241 counties will violate the new standard. (For the older, 2008 standard, EPA listed 192 counties and 40 partial counties as nonattainment.) EPA expects most new nonattainment counties (except in California) will come into compliance in the next few years just from existing controls that are relatively new or just starting to show benefits. EPA’s critics strongly dispute that, arguing that states will face great difficulty finding additional and affordable controls on VOCs and NOx. Whether easy or difficult, this first cut at attainment or nonattainment will be a critical indicator regarding location and future regulatory burdens.
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