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Front Line: One-Year Update on the Revised Ozone Standard

Directory 2017
September 30th marked an important clean air deadline. That’s when governors had to send EPA a list of in-state regions judged to comply, or not, with the revised ozone (O3) standard, changed one year earlier, October 1, 2015. EPA tightened the standard, from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70. Ozone is formed mostly from two common and ubiquitous precursor pollutants — nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). At certain levels, O3 can cause lung and respiratory problems.

The governors’ assessments are based on air-quality readings and related factors such as emissions sources and geography. Importantly, these are not final assessments. To the contrary, EPA will review the governors’ work. If EPA disagrees with a governor’s assessment, it will give notice by June 2, 2017, with final determinations made by October 1, 2017. This is not entirely an apples-to-apples review. The governors’ work is based on air-quality data from 2013, 2014, and 2015. EPA’s review will use data from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Obviously, different data could lead to different conclusions.

EPA’s compliance determination is a critical Clean Air Act requirement. Noncompliance also includes a ranking of how excessively a region exceeds the standard. Rankings start at “marginal” and go to “extreme.” Each ranking adds pollution controls and sets specific compliance deadlines. Cities and metro areas have struggled with the ozone standard for decades.

At the end of October, EPA said it was still gathering the governors’ reports. However, the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies has compiled a portfolio of 17 reports from its membership. Those reports provide a “first draft” insight into the nation’s ozone profile and the likely direction and extent of upcoming regulatory programs. Below are some summary observations (except for California, which is always an exception in discussions about ozone):
  • Some entire states are newly compliant. Governors in five states —IN, NC, SC, WA, and WV — conclude their entire state is in compliance. This is a big deal, particularly for Indiana and North Carolina, which had concerns that the Charlotte metro area might slide back to nonattainment status under the lower standard. Indiana’s Lake and Porter counties, adjacent to Chicago, have been out of compliance for years — no longer, even with a lower standard.
  • Four states have only a single noncompliant region. KY, NM, NY, and VA each report just one multicounty nonattainment area, with the rest of the state in attainment. Kentucky lists portions of three counties — Campbell, Kenton, and Boone, which are regulated as part of the greater Cincinnati air shed, as nonattainment. Virginia lists four counties — Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William — as nonattainment, down from eight counties under the old standard! And New York lists every upstate county in compliance with the new standard, with just the nine New York metro area counties as nonattainment.
  • Big city metro areas are still the core problem areas in several reporting states. These include AZ, CO, MI, OH, PA, TX, and UT. However, of the reports that include numerical readings, most ozone levels are on the low side — ranging from 71 to 74 ppb. This is important for evaluating what it might take to squeeze out final increments of pollution, and related costs. In Texas, four metro areas do not meet the revised standard: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Galveston-Brazoria, San Antonio, and El Paso. However, it appears the new standard will affect more counties in Texas, up from 18 to 21. Pennsylvania lists metro Philadelphia (four counties) and metro Pittsburgh (seven counties) and two single counties, Indian and Lebanon, as nonattainment. But the total number of affected counties shrinks, from 17 to 14. Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati remain Ohio’s core nonattainment areas. Like other places, though, actual readings are low, just barely above the 70 ppb standard.
Interstate Transport
The East Coast states, from Virginia to Maine, are part of a regulated group called the Ozone Transport Commission. A big concern is pollution blown in from other areas, particularly states to the west. East coast officials contend that high, local O3 levels are regularly caused by distant pollution sources. The wind, of course, still blows some pollution in from the Great Lakes to the Eastern Seaboard. Yet, again, compliance is projected for all of New York’s upstate counties. Ditto for most of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Be assured, EPA will take a close look at cross-state transport modeling.

In Sum
As noted, the governors’ assessments really just start the regulatory next steps. And data from many states still needs to be added to complete the national picture. But this preliminary look, based on representative states with familiar problems, shows likely limited program expansion and pollution readings on the low side in places where one might expect much higher numbers. That’s an optimistic way to at least start thinking about next steps.
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