Ozone pollution in the West: The controversy that threatens state regulators
Utah Clean Air Advocates Say State Regulators And Key Utah Politicians Are Trying To Bypass Tighter Smog Controls By Backing Up With Technical Analysis paid by industry and in contradiction with the state’s own data.
By requesting a 179B demonstration from the United States Environmental Protection Agency which says the northern Wasatch Front would meet the federal ozone standard if it had not been for international transport from contributors to human-made ozone, advocates say the state is shirking its duty to control ozone.
“This is one of the most critical decisions impacting air quality in Utah. This is very important, ”said Joro Walker, general counsel for Western Resource Advocates, who, along with other groups, filed a formal objection included in Demonstration Request 179B.
The Northern Front Wasatch has been designated as marginal non-ozone breach and faces a more serious classification of “moderate” in a decision expected by the EPA this fall if the federal agency rejects the demonstration. 179B.
Ozone, a dangerous and nagging problem
The Air Quality Division’s own data shows that despite an almost 40% decrease in emissions of volatile organic compound precursors and nitrogen oxides – chemicals that react with sunlight to forming ozone – ozone levels did not decline in the north of the Wasatch Front over the following period. years.
Data from EPA regulators shows that about 9% to 20% of ozone in Utah is human-made, of which 63% comes from mobile sources such as exhaust pipes, 23% from sources local and the rest from industrial sources.
This means that the overwhelming remainder of ozone ranges from 50% to 55% of background or international emissions – a heavy burden for regulators to keep under control.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah air quality division, said the Utah Petroleum Association and the Utah Mining Association had paid for a more technical EPA modeling process not available internally in the division. He is now starting his own photochemical analysis.
He made arguments that the international ozone pollutant provision required for demonstration 179B, the North Wasatch Front would retain its current classification, but it remains to be seen whether the EPA will approve the document’s findings.
Bird and Rikki Henrko-Browning reject supporters’ accusation that the state is trying to shirk its efforts to further tamp down pollutants that cause ozone formation.
“The 179B does not get you out of non-fulfillment. We are still in non-achievement, and we still have to identify control strategies. We still have to meet the standard. We’re not off the hook for that, ”Bird said.
Background Ozone and the international transport of ozone-causing pollutants are not new to the West. The EPA published a white paper on the matter in 2015 and further provided regulators with advice on researching the 179B demonstration.
Outside of Utah, several western states are struggling to control ozone, including Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. Bird added that the international transport of harmful emissions was a concern for Utah regulators and that a successful EPA decision could elevate it to a national policy issue.
El Paso obtained a 179B demonstration in 2004 for ozone for the pollutant drifting into its state from international sources, and San Antonio has a pending application with the EPA. Imperial County in California got a demonstration, but it was for PM10 fine particle pollution. If Utah were to get the 179B demonstration, it would be the first non-border state to gain status, but this is not a new inclusion that is excluded under the provisions of the Clean Air Act.
The influence of Asia
In 2017, Princeton and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a study that found, collectively, China, North Korea and South Korea, Japan, India and other South Asian countries. tripled their nitrogen oxide emissions, a precursor of ozone formation. and that was causing a problem in the West.
Ground-level ozone is harmful to human health. It worsens asthma attacks and causes breathing difficulties.
The Princeton / NOAA study was unique in that it was one of the first research efforts that categorizes the extent to which rising Asian emissions contribute to ozone formation in the United States.
At the time, in response to that study, Bird said that even rural areas of the state and other parts of the west were suffering from above-threshold ozone levels, including the Grand Bassin National Park. , which is hundreds of kilometers from industrial sources.
A study led by NASA warned in 2015 that when the EPA lowered the standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, that left little room for some Western states to have local ozone production given that the background ozone was already so high.
But Walker and others warn that by seeking the protest, Utah is seriously endangering the health of residents along the northern Wasatch Front.
“Ozone concentrations have been associated with significant adverse health effects. We are faced with a situation where they ask to be off the hook. … It’s not like Utah is alone in this case, ”Walker said. “There are ways to make cuts. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Walker also lambasted the industry-driven modeling which she said even air quality regulators and senior politicians had received “lukewarm” at best.
“This is not an extremely convincing demonstration,” she said, pointing to a file of internal correspondence between senior officials in Utah that indicated some reluctance for the industry to be so heavily involved. in both the analysis and the submission of the 179B demonstration to the EPA.
But Henrko-Browning said the third-party company that performed the analysis is well respected, has been used by state agencies, including Utah regulators, and provided additional scientific technical expertise that was not available to Air Quality Division regulators. .
“The aim of the study was to determine the extent of international transport based on DAQ’s own modeling. There was never any pressure on DAQ to use this study. It was made available as a resource, ”she said.
Bird said the division performed two types of modeling that looked at international sources of human-made pollution causing ozone formation on days north of the Wasatch Front exceeded the federal standard.
What the division found was that international shipping had little to no effect on those high-overrun days.
He also performed modeling that stepped back from days of high ozone exceedances, which, again, showed little to no impact from international transport of pollutants.
What the larger consultants’ study found – and in keeping with the general science of the EPA – is that the build-up of international emissions is an event that occurs over time and not necessarily from conditions. weather such as southerly winds that trigger a sudden explosion of pollution.
Bird said high levels of ozone exist in the region due to hot temperatures worsened by a stagnant high pressure system, especially in high altitude locations.
The division used a model at its disposal that examined isolated days and isolated weather conditions.
Walker criticized the modeling encouraged by the consultants as a way for any western state to agree to more stringent pollution controls.
The excluded public?
“Their proposal specifically asks the EPA to relieve them of their obligation to reduce emissions in accordance with the deadline set by the Clean Air Act,” she said, also adding that the public was not allowed to provide a meaningful contribution and participate in discussions. .
But Bird and Henrko-Browning counter that third-party analysis and the division’s subsequent analysis will allow regulators to arrive at the science-based pollution control technologies that are most effective – not just a shotgun scatter which may not lead to significant results. reductions.
“Anything we could do under the Clean Air Act, we did, but we still see ozone values above the standard,” Bird said. “We have already gone from one level above what is required for marginal failure, and although we are seeing reductions in nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, we are not seeing any reduction in ozone. “