ON THE RECORD/Clear talk about local air pollution problems
On April 15, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that 474 counties in 31 states are not in compliance with ground-level ozone standards. The ozone standard is based on averaging air quality measurements over eight-hour blocks of time, and an average greater than 0.08 parts per million exceeds the standard. EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation Jeff Holmstead explains what the designation means and what local governments need to do to comply.
Q: What are some common causes of the ground-level ozone problems?
Holmstead: Ozone is formed at ground level by a chemical reaction of various air pollutants combined with sunlight. Some of the major sources of ozone-forming pollutants are vehicle and engine exhaust, emissions from industrial facilities, combustion from electric utilities, gasoline vapors, chemical solvents and biogenic emissions from natural sources.
Q: Are there degrees of noncompliance?
A: The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to consider the severity of an area’s ozone problem when classifying nonattainment status. Classifications of nonattainment and the maximum attainment dates for each are as follows: basic — five to 10 years; marginal — three years; moderate — six years; serious — nine years; severe 15 — 15 years; severe 17 — 17 years; and extreme — 20 years.
Q: What are the consequences of noncompliance?
A: The Clean Air Act requires EPA to impose sanctions on a state if it fails to submit a “state implementation plan;” if it fails to implement an approved plan; or if EPA disapproves the plan. Two sanctions are available. One is that any new large industrial facility built in the area must find offsets equal to twice its proposed emissions. This is known as the 2:1 offset sanction. Another is prohibition of federal funding for new highway projects (safety and air quality improvement projects are exempted from this sanction). The EPA applies the 2:1 offset sanction 18 months after the finding if the problem is not corrected. EPA applies the highway sanction six months after the offset sanction if the state still has not acted to resolve the problem.
If an area fails to meet the ozone air quality standard by its attainment date, it gets “bumped up” to the next classification. Severe areas may not be bumped up to extreme. Severe and extreme areas are subject to penalty fee provisions identified in the Clean Air Act for failure to attain the standards. If a basic area fails to meet the standards, it does not get bumped up. It is required to submit a new plan and is given more time to meet the standards.
Q: When do offending areas have to submit remediation plans?
A: Local, tribal and state officials need to craft a remediation plan for the state and submit the plan to EPA by April 2007. State plans will make sure power plants, factories and other pollution sources meet clean-up goals by working through the air pollution permitting process that applies to industrial facilities. Working with the EPA, states, tribes [and other] areas also will implement programs to further reduce emissions of ozone precursors.
Some nonattainment areas are in more than one state. In that case, states must work together to improve ozone air quality. Tribes with areas not meeting the ozone standards may develop implementation plans or EPA will take on that responsibility for them. EPA is taking a wide range of national clean air actions that will help all areas across the country significantly improve ozone air quality. Many of these actions will bring local areas into attainment without any additional local controls.