Air quality rules bear watching
When EPA proposed its rule on ozone and particulate matter late in 1996, Hennepin County (Minn.) Commissioner Randy Johnson, then president of the National Association of Counties, said his members were “disillusioned, dismayed and disappointed” about the controversial clean air proposal. Despite local government concerns, however, that proposal went into effect in Summer 1997.
A year and a half later, EPA is back with a new clean air rule focused entirely on urban areas. The rule targets what EPA calls “urban soup” – a group of 30 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) that the agency says are found in heavy concentrations in urban areas. It also reflects EPA’s bottom-line concern that minorities and low-income people who live in urban areas experience a disproportionate risk of cancer and other public health problems because of poor air quality.
EPA is proposing limits (that would go into effect by 2000) on benzene, formaldehyde and other HAPs from car emissions. The standard will be national, so it will affect both urban and rural areas.
What EPA calls “area sources,” relatively small industrial facilities, also will be affected. The agency has a list of 34 industries that have a major presence in urban areas, and its goal is to control emissions at half of them by 2002.
Bill Becker, executive director of the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Offices, wants the strictest regulations possible. “If EPA merely proceeds with the status quo, this urban strategy will be a failure,” he says.
Local government officials do not appear to be too concerned about the potential effects of more stringent regulations. Relatively unfamiliar with the EPA draft Urban Air Toxics strategy that was issued on Sept. 14, neither the National League of Cities nor NACo offered comments. (Public comments were due Nov. 30.) On the other hand, in September and November, EPA held four public meetings about the draft strategy. Laura McKelvey, EPA’s official in charge of the air toxics strategy, says that major industrial trade associations have attended the meetings.
Their message to EPA is one cities and counties do not want to hear: Control emissions from industrial facilities only within urban areas, not nationally. “If we only get comments from industry, the standards may only apply in urban areas,” says McKelvey, who acknowledges that local governments have been very quiet.
Ultimately, EPA will need to weigh the value of clean air in the cities against the problems air toxic rules may pose for companies considering building new facilities in brownfields redevelopment areas.
McKelvey says the agency is sensitive to that potential conflict. Congress, however, had come down on the side of cleaner air long before EPA began focusing on brownfields redevelopment. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which authorized the ozone/particulate matter rule, directed EPA to identify the 30 HAPs and cut emissions by 90 percent. In addition, it directed the agency to substantially reduce risks to public health (including a 75 percent reduction in cancer risk). Those tall orders were to have been accomplished before 2000.
Consequently, EPA is trying to fast-track many of the air quality regulations. The danger, however, is that the agency will act in a factual vacuum.
EPA admits in its Federal Register notice, “To understand the risks from air toxics more fully, we must address significant data gaps. We have limited information on human health effects associated with many of the HAPs, the extent [of exposure] to air toxics in urban areas, and the effect of exposure to multiple pollutants.”