Q&A: Air Quality, EPA Standards & How They Affect Us
EDITORíS NOTE: This is an edited transcript of an interview with Donnie Redmond, planning section chief of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resourcesí Division of Air Quality.
1. What is ozone?
2. Has air quality improved in North Carolina?
3. What are the EPA standards and how do they affect us?
4. Whatís next?
What is Ozone?
Q: We have heard for years that we need ozone to block ultraviolet radiation. Now we hear that high levels of ozone are bad for us. Is ozone good or bad?
A: It is true that we need stratospheric ozone to block ultraviolet radiation. But ground-level ozone causes lung irritation, especially at higher concentrations, so ground-level ozone is not good. Down here we donít want high levels of ozone, but up high we do.
Q: What is ground-level ozone and what causes it?
A: Ground-level ozone is generated when nitrogen oxides (NOx) combine with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight, especially with low humidity and light winds. Coal-burning power plants and motor vehicles are the primary man-made sources in North Carolina. NOx is created when fossil fuels ń like gas or diesel in autos or coal in power plants ń are burned.
Q: Rowan County has three ozone monitors, but Cabarrus has none. Is the monitor located on the Rowan/Cabarrus line a good indicator of whatís going on in Cabarrus County?
A: Since ozone tends to be a regional issue, it is a good indicator. Ozone covers a widespread area.
Has Air Quality Improved in North Carolina?
Q: We have heard that the air in North Carolina is cleaner than it was in the 1980s. Is this right?
A: Ozone levels across the state have improved and are expected to continue to improve in spite of our population growth. But parts of the state donít meet the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Iíll talk more about that later.
Q: What has improved our air quality?
A: A number of programs have had a beneficial effect. The call for NOx State Implementation Plans and CAIR (Clean Air Interstate Rule) are federal programs designed to reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants. The Clean Smokestacks Act is a state program that further reduces coal-burning power plant emissions in North Carolina. The State Attorney Generalís office has filed suit against the Tennessee Valley Authority and other states to reduce their emissions as well.
Q: What about motor vehicle emissions?
A: The expanded motor vehicle emissionsí testing is having a positive effect on our air quality. We now have 48 counties that require citizens to get their cars inspected for emissions. That represents 80 percent of the cars in the state. In addition, standards on cars are getting tighter, and fuels got cleaner a few years ago. The sulfur content in gasoline and diesel was lowered significantly. Finally, the motor vehicle fleet gets cleaner every year as old cars die and are replaced by new cars.
Q: What part do motor vehicles play in the ozone pollution in Rowan and Cabarrus counties?
A: Mobile (highway cars and trucks) and non-road sources (such as bulldozers, outboard motors and lawnmowers) produce 59 percent of the nitrogen oxides and 49 percent of the man-made volatile organic compounds in Rowan County. Mobile and non-road sources in Cabarrus produce 82 percent of the NOx and 65 percent of the man-made VOC.
Q: What is the Cash for Clunkers program weíve been hearing about and how will that help our ozone problem?
A: President Barak Obama recently signed into law a program that helps you purchase a new, more fuel- efficient vehicle when you trade in a less fuel-efficient vehicle. Some refer to the program as Cash for Clunkers. If old cars are replaced with newer, more fuel-efficient cars, that helps our air quality.
What are the EPA Standards and how do they affect us?
Q: If our air is cleaner, why do we still not meet the Environmental Protection Agencyís air quality standards?
A: The EPA keeps tightening the standards because scientists and medical professionals find that health problems associated with ground-level ozone are not abating sufficiently. Back when the standard was 120 ppb (parts per billion), they determined that it was still affecting peopleís health so it was lowered again. They determined that the public is still getting health problems with the 1997 level of 84 ppb, so the EPA lowered the ozone standard to 75 ppb in 2008.
Q: We know that the Greater Charlotte area (Rowan, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Lincoln, Gastonia, Union and part of Iredell) has been designated a moderate non-attainment area. What does that mean?
A: ěNon-attainmentî is a word that the U.S. EPA uses. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set national air quality standards for various air pollutants and to re-examine those standards every five years to make sure the standards it sets reflect healthy air quality. If an area does not meet a standard, it is designated ěnon-attaintment.î
Q: What are the repercussions of being in non-attainment?
A: Besides the obvious health issues, it would place further restrictions on industry and it could affect whether we receive federal transportation dollars.
Q: We have to submit a SIP (State Implementation Plan) to the EPA to show them we have a plan in place to mitigate the ozone pollution in the state. Where do we stand with that today?
A: We decided to withdraw our Metrolina SIP because we knew the EPA wouldnít approve it, and that would have meant that some sanctions may have kicked in right away. Weíre completing the modeling now on the current SIP. It will go through an internal review and then a public review before we submit it to the EPA in November.
Q: We understand that the EPA could reclassify our area to ěseriousî non-attainment in the near future. What is the chance of that?
A: I would guess we have a 50-50 chance of getting bumped up to a ěseriousî category. If we have another season of high ozone readings this summer, we will not attain the 8-hour ozone standard that the EPA established in 1997. Even if we pass the 1997 standard this summer, we will have to meet a new standard in the next few years. EPA may designate the area ěseriousî for the new standard next March. And if any one of the seven monitors in our area fails, the whole area fails.
Q: What would a ěseriousî designation mean?
A: That would not be good news for industries. They would face additional restrictions and limitations under those circumstances. Industries currently have to get special federal permits if they emit more than 100 tons of certain pollutants per year. If weíre in the serious category, the threshold for having to get one of those permits drops down to 50 tons. And those permits are expensive. It would also require industries to install more emission-control equipment. (For more information on the rules, visit http://daq.state.nc.us/rules/rules/.)
We have notified about 200 facilities in the seven-county region that could be affected if that happens. A total of 18 are in Rowan County and 19 are in Cabarrus. The EPA estimates that it generally costs $3,000 – $5,000 per ton to control emissions through those costs can vary widely. (For more information on control techniques, visit http://www.epa.gov/air/ozonepollution/SIPToolkit/ctgs.html.)
Q: How does a ěseriousî designation affect economic development?
A: If industries that are already here want to undergo a major expansion or a major new industry wants to come in, they are subject to a new set of requirements. These include installing the most stringent emissions control equipment available regardless of cost — plus they have to offset their emissions increase. They can offset the emissions increase by shutting something down or adding more pollution-control equipment to other processes or paying for somebody elseís pollution-control measures. That makes it hard to recruit new industry to the area or for existing industries to expand significantly.
Q: What are the other impacts of the ěseriousî category?
A: Gas stations may have to install equipment for collecting gasoline vapors while refueling motor vehicles. Thatís expensive because there is underground piping involved. It will also cost citizens more money to get repairs if they fail vehicle inspections. Now if you spend $200 on repairs and still fail, you can get a one-year waiver from additional repairs. If we are in the ěseriousî category, the minimum expenditure bumps up to about $500.
Q: How does it affect our ability to get federal funds for highways?
A: Bumping up to ěseriousî wonít affect highways right away. But transportation planning has other problems related to the air quality standards. When weíre putting together the State Implementation Plan, we ask the transportation officials to project their highway needs in the future. They have to ensure that emissions will not contribute to worsening air quality. If growth exceeds their expectations, they find it difficult to meet the budget set up by the SIP. If we are out of compliance, we stand to delay or lose funding the federal government pays for highway construction and repair.
A: We will watch ozone values this summer. So far we really havenít had many bad ozone days. We havenít violated the old standard all summer. Weíre hoping for continued rain and cooler weather. Weíll submit the revised Metrolina SIP in November. The EPA will designate new nonattainment boundaries in March of next year. In the meantime, the EPA may consider lowering the ozone standard even further.