Buncombe expected to comply with proposed EPA air-quality standards

Image courtesy of the EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering a proposal to require stricter standards on ground-level ozone pollutants, with a public comment period open until March 17.

As required by the Clean Air Act, the EPA reviews its standards every five years to determine if regulations are adequately protecting the public health. The new proposal, issued on Nov. 25, 2014, would limit ground-level ozone to a level in the range of 65 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The current standard is 75 parts per billion.

Areas that fail to meet the new standard would be in nonattainment, which would lead to further limits on emissions from industrial sources (such as power plants) and would require air-quality analysis to be done before federal funds can be recieved for transportation projects.

Ashley Featherstone, permitting program manager for the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, says, if passed, even the lowest levels of the prospoal are not expected to have an impact on Buncombe County.

“For the most part, it looks like we will meet the standard, though there are areas around us that do not meet the low end of this proposal,” Featherstone says. “Still, we don’t think it will have an impact on our local industries.”

Ozone at the highest elevations (called transport ozone) can blow in from larger metropolitan areas like Charlotte and Atlanta, Featherstone notes. As reported in the Charlotte Observer, Mecklenburg County would be the only county in North Carolina that would violate the upper end of the proposed range, though 16 N.C. counties would fail to comply with the lower range, based on data averaged from 2012-2014.

The EPA will accept public comment on levels as low as 60 ppb, though Featherstone says it is unlikely a level this low will be approved. She adds that recent data shows some of “the cleanest years” on record for North Carolina air quality.

“We’ve seen so many improvements that we don’t expect to see really high levels come back,” she says. “But we are influenced by weather and other things, so that isn’t to say it can’t happen.” She credits the emissions reduction across the country and in North Carolina to cleaner cars and more stringent EPA standards.

Bill Eaker, environmental manager at Land of the Sky Regional Council and the Clean Cities coordinator for the the organizations’s Clean Vehicles Coalition, adds that Asheville has implemented many programs that have helped to reduce emissions and keep the area in attainment status.

“There’s been a lot of work done in the last 20 years to move toward more energy-efficient structures,” Eaker says. “Low-emission vehicles also help, as do electric cars. We’ve added charging stations throughout the city, and we’ve encouraged the use of biodiesel and natural gas. Our law enforcement is also using propane in some of their vehicles.”

The EPA proposal also includes a change in the monitoring season for ozone levels for some states, including North Carolina. The proposal would extend the monitoring season by one month, beginning on March 1, instead of April 1. Featherstone says this will allow the EPA to capture the most accurate data and to match the times of year when ozone, which is affected by heat and sunlight, can approach unhealthy levels. If passed, the proposed monitoring extension would go into effect in 2017.

The WNC Regional Air Quality Board will meet on Monday, Jan. 12, to briefly discuss the EPA proposal. The meeting is open to the public, but Featherstone says a full presentation will not be made and the board is not expected to submit comment on the proposal. The state is expected to submit official comment, though North Carolina is not expected to require any further emissions reductions. Featherstone says this is likely because the EPA’s data shows that areas not projected to attain the standards in 2017 would likely meet the standards by 2025 or earlier due to federal requirements that are currently being phased in to reduce emissions from vehicles and power plants.

The EPA writes in its proposal that “the proposed updates will improve public health protection, particularly for children, the elderly and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.” The final standards will be issued by October 2015. Featherstone says she is unaware of any locally planned public meetings on the matter, but comments may be submitted through the EPA’s website.

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About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at ceidson@mountainx.com. Follow me @carrieeidson

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