BR area meets ozone standards ahead of schedule

Baton Rouge residents are breathing cleaner air as the five-parish area around the city has met the federal standard for ozone levels two years ahead of schedule.

However, some environmental groups contend the federal standard for ozone, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t go far enough to protect the health of people. They say stricter standards should be imposed.

Meeting the ozone pollution standard has been a long road for the Baton Rouge area, which has struggled for years to meet previous federal standards by enacting new regulations, including requiring yearly car inspections.

Those requirements will remain because the Clean Air Act doesn’t allow taking away air regulations once they’ve been put in place.

The Baton Rouge area took only about a year of the allowed three years to meet the most recent and stricter ozone standard set by federal authorities.

Ozone isn’t a pollutant released into the air, but instead forms when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from industrial activities, car exhaust and other sources combine in the air during hot and sunny days.

When there isn’t much wind, ozone can accumulate in an area and cause breathing and other health problems.

The Baton Rouge area was classified in 2012 as “marginal” — the least severe classification — under the new federal ozone standard and had until 2015 to meet measurements of 75 parts per billion. Air monitoring information up to Dec. 31 shows that all air monitors in the area meet that level now.

“We’ve really come a long way,” said Mike McDaniel, executive director of the Baton Rouge Clean Air Coalition. “I have to say we were optimistic when we went into the year.”

The positive results come from rules and regulations that were put into place to meet previous standards and allowed enough time to work, said Vivian Aucoin, environmental scientist manager with DEQ’s air permits division.

“What this proves to me is that our controls are working, that we are doing the right things,” Aucoin said.

The area was found to be officially in compliance with the previous 8-hour ozone standard at 80 parts per billion in 2011 before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed the stricter standard.

State officials take air-monitoring readings for ozone and determine if a monitor is in compliance with federal rules by taking the fourth highest 8-hour-average ozone reading of the year and averaging three years of those readings.

The five-parish area of East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville and Livingston will have to continue to follow rules such as the annual vehicle inspection put in place for being out of compliance with the earlier ozone standard.

However, since the area was classified as marginal under the stricter standard no new rules were put in place, Aucoin said. Ethanol seen in gas stations around the state is not related to the ozone issue, but is a part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, she said.

One possible change could come with the current requirement that gas pumps in the five-parish area have the vapor recovery system. EPA has since decided that the vapor recovery devices on cars supersedes the one on gas pumps, Aucoin said.

Before a recommendation to lift the requirement can be made, DEQ is doing computer modeling to see if doing so would have a negative impact on ozone formation.

“They’ll see if any of the numbers go up,” Aucoin said.

If the computer modeling shows there won’t be any negative impact, the state will request the gas pump vapor recovery requirement be lifted for the five-parish area.

That modeling should be done by the end of February, she said.

The next step will be for the state Department of Environmental Quality to file documentation with EPA to get an official redesignation for the five-parish region, Aucoin said.

The documentation will include information about maintenance monitoring for ozone for two, 10-year periods.

If there is an ozone problem at one of the eight air monitors during that time, she said, contingency plans are put in place instead of deeming the entire area as out of compliance with the ozone standard.

If those contingency plans still don’t bring the monitors into compliance there is a possibility that the area could go back to a marginal designation.

Although there have been discussions that EPA will make the ozone standard stricter in the near future, nothing official has been proposed yet. If it does get lowered to 60 ppb or 70 ppb that would take in many more areas of the state and country into nonattainment for ozone, he said.

In the meantime, McDaniel said, DEQ is doing computer modeling for ozone across the state to prepare for possible lowering of the ozone standard even further.

“We’ll have a really good tool to work on the problem if they do decide to lower it,” McDaniel said.

The executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Marylee Orr, said she hopes EPA will make the standard stricter than then current 75 ppb, as was recommended by EPA’s own advisory committee.

“It’s better, but many fence line communities don’t think it’s enough to protect public health,” Orr said. “I would have liked to see it between 60 and 70 ppb.”

There has been better recognition and science done on the health impacts from ozone exposure which is a change from 20 years ago, she said.

“Two decades ago, people really didn’t take this seriously,” Orr said.