State, local officials celebrate improved quality of air

A photograph from 1972 hangs in Michael Vince’s office and shows clouds of industrial fumes floating above the Highway 190 bridge in Baton Rouge.

With that photo projected on a screen Wednesday, Vince, a DEQ senior scientist, told the audience at a Department of Environmental Quality news conference that when he was a child, he would hold his breath while his parents drove across the bridge.

Murmurs of agreement came from the crowd as others recalled similar experiences.

State officials and representatives from the parish, industry, air quality groups and others gathered Wednesday to celebrate how far the state has come since those days, particularly that a five-parish area — which includes East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville and Livingston parishes — met the federal ozone standard.

“We’re here today to acknowledge the efforts of a great number of people,” said DEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch. “It’s worked. The air quality in Louisiana is better than ever and it continues to improve.”

EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry agreed and praised the five-parish area for finding solutions in the community and meeting the ozone standard. Those kinds of community-derived solutions, he said, are the ones that tend to stick.

“I’m here to say you’re on the right track and to thank everyone for their work,” Curry said. “Congratulations to you and keep it up.”

Ozone isn’t a pollution released directly into the air. Instead, ozone forms through a chemical reaction when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from industry, car exhaust and other sources combine in the air during hot and sunny days.

When there isn’t much wind, the formed ozone can accumulate in an area and lead to breathing and other health problems, especially for sensitive populations.

The five-parish area had until 2015 to meet a more strict standard of 74 parts per billion of ozone. However, air monitoring information showed the area started meeting the standard at the end of 2013. Baton Rouge had been classified in 2012 as “marginal” — the least severe classification under the standard.

Vince said the challenge will continue, and this time will likely involve more areas of the state as EPA considers making the standard even more strict. That new standard could be announced by the end of the year.

In the meantime, DEQ staff has been working with communities that could be affected, including New Orleans, Houma/Thibodaux, Shreveport and Lafayette, to start making changes now that will lower their ozone levels in anticipation of new standards.

Part of that effort will be finding out where the ozone problems are coming from, whether it’s industry, vehicle traffic, small businesses or from some other origin, and then work to voluntarily take action.

If the new standard comes out and an area doesn’t meet it, the actions required to fix it will no longer be voluntary. That’s why, Vince said, it’s important that the rest of the state start thinking about ozone just as much as Baton Rouge has for decades.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.