Senate panel divided on bills to modify EPA’s proposed ozone rules

US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members divided along party lines over the US Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed National Ambient Air Quality Standards covering ground-level ozone, and a trio of Republican bills that would delay or modify their implementation.

Republicans said S. 638, S. 640, and S. 751 are necessary because EPA’s proposal to reduce allowable ozone from the 75 ppb established in 2008 to 65-70 ppb would push many parts of the country into nonattainment before they can comply with the existing limit. The proposed new requirements also don’t recognize when ozone occurs naturally or is transported from other areas, they argued.

Democrats responded that new requirements are necessary to continue public health improvements, and scoffed at GOP suggestions that they potentially would harm businesses and cost jobs. “These bills would delay the health protections of the ozone standards, block implementation of an ozone standard altogether, or create new loopholes for how air pollution data is assessed,” Ranking Minority Member Barbara Boxer (Calif.) said.

She noted that the June 3 hearing came a day after the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in response to a series of legal challenges that EPA acted properly in determinations it reached concerning regions’ compliance with ground-level ozone control requirements.

The challenges included one by environmental group Wild Earth Guardians that EPA should have designated Eastern Utah’s Uinta basin out of compliance instead of unclassifiable even though private measurements were available. The court backed EPA’s decision that the privately collected figures were not sufficient, rendering it unclassifiable.

“In an attempt to stop oil and natural gas development, the environmental groups were foolishly asking for a precedent to throw out [Clean Air Act] requirements and allow the use of poor-quality data,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver. The group’s members operating in eastern Utah have worked with EPA, the State of Utah, the Ute Indian tribe, and two county governments for years to improve the Uinta basin’s air quality, she noted.

Unique conditions

Imposing nationwide ozone limits in that region is unfair because it has some of the highest naturally occurring wintertime ozone in the country, Uintah County Commission Chairman Michael McKee testified. “Primarily, winter ozone levels rise when snow cover and multiday temperature inversions occur,” he said. “Other factors such as high levels of background ozone and naturally occurring emissions also add to our winter ozone equation.

“Imported ozone and high elevations, as experienced throughout the West, contribute significantly to high ozone episodes in the basin—making it that much more difficult to comply with existing Federal standards,” McKee said. He said that while it is clear oil and gas industry emissions of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and formaldehyde contribute to ozone precursors, they do not create high ozone levels without precise weather conditions.

He said the area’s oil and gas producers are willing to invest in more emissions controls but are hesitant to do so without certainty that they will be effective and that they will be credited if a nonattainment determination makes a State Implementation Plan necessary.

“In the case of the Uinta basin, we need more scientific resources dedicated toward the problem and we need flexibility to implement regulatory actions to determine the most effective controls to improve our air quality,” McKee said.

“If we go into nonattainment, the industry will simply relocate to areas where the additional costs associated with emissions controls are not required, and a struggling economy will go into a tailspin with few resources available to dedicate toward air quality improvement,” he warned.

Calls for delay

More stringent ozone requirements would dramatically increase the number of US counties and regions in nonattainment before the 2008 standards are fully implemented, said Gary Moore, Boone County, Ky., judge-executive and National Association of Regional Councils president. “My county received implementation guidelines for the 2008 standards just a few months ago,” he said. “This process should be allowed to play out before a new standard is established.”

Moore said NARC and the National Association of Counties have identified three main concerns: Local and regional governments must balance air quality needs with transportation and economic concerns, additional costs would be significant and federal assistance would be extremely limited, and the agency’s approach to the update has been inconsistent and challenging.

“Many of the counties which would be affected are smaller ones that don’t have major staffs,” he said. “If you add requirements and costs, you’re adding responsibilities for a system that’s not working now. Let’s let the 2008 requirements play out, and see where they go.”

Regional officials from California and Washington, DC, separately said meeting federal air-quality requirements continues to be challenging, but progress is being made. “Meeting CAA requirements has been difficult in California because of its climate and geography,” Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District Executive Director Larry Greene said. “NAAQS has been a pillar of complying with it. This matters, but so does the cost to businesses. We’ve had to be resourceful.”

A fifth witness, Gregory B. Diette, MD, a Johns Hopkins University Medicine, Epidemiology, and Environmental Health Science professor who testified on the American Thoracic Society’s behalf, said the organization has called for an even lower ozone limit of 60 ppb for years. “Ozone exposures in the 60-70 ppb range have adverse physiologic effects across the entire age spectrum—from newborn infants to the elderly,” he said.

When committee member Mike Rounds (R-SD) said a 2011 study found significant areas of the US West have background ozone levels around 70 ppb, Diette said that such measurements have not been reliable and other estimates place such levels at 20-40 ppb. “As a healthcare provider, ideas such as getting everyone in attainment first before moving forward strike me as strange,” he said. “It sounds like keeping people in some areas from benefiting so other areas can catch up.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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